CWAC lobbies government over policies on traveller sites

Cheshire West & Chester Council is urging the Government to provide "strong leadership and unequivocal planning guidance" on policies affecting provision of sites for gypsies and travellers.

The council believes that "wishful misinterpretation" of Whitehall's intentions has led to unjustified criticism of decisions made by the authority and its officers in accordance with current planning guidance.

In April 2011, the Government published a draft new planning policy for traveller sites relating to England only.

Department for Communities and Local Government said the consultation was due to close on 6 July but the Government has decided to extend the deadline for four weeks. The consultation will now close on 3 August 2011.

The Government's consultation document indicates that local authorities will be required to assess local need for traveller sites and Cheshire West & Chester is calling for a national assessment methodology which is "clear, fair and consistent" and leaves no room for misinterpretation or legal challenge.

Mike Jones, leader of Cheshire West & Chester Council, has written to Communities and Local Government Minister, Eric Pickles and the five west Cheshire members of parliament, expressing his concern about current misconceptions surrounding the Government's current consultation on planning guidance.

Jones said: "Despite suggestions to the contrary, I am advised that there is no evidence in the Government's draft consultation document (DCLG "Planning for Traveller Sites") to suggest an end to the requirement for local authorities to assess the need for sites and provide sites.

"Indeed, its status as a draft document in embryonic form, carries very little weight in the determination of individual planning applications. Hence the requirement to make decisions on the basis of the present Circular 01/2006."

In its reply to the Government consultation, the council said it is calling for urgent clarification around the green belt and traveller sites when the new guidelines are published.

Jones added: "It seems that national policy governing building in the Green Belt will largely remain unchanged. Gypsy and traveller sites within the Green Belt will remain 'inappropriate development' which, like other similarly categorised development, is only acceptable if justified by 'very special circumstances'.

"Like many authorities, CWAC has not met its quota (31-45 additional pitches) required under the existing guidance – a situation largely inherited from its legacy authorities. Planning Inspectors have accorded this considerable weight in allowing appeals against refusal to grant permission on a Green Belt site.

"In short, the current situation is at best unclear with the onus on local authorities to deliver a policy which is highly contentious against an uncertain background and potentially inaccurate perception of future policy."

Jones stresses that the only action open to local authorities to prevent unauthorised sites being granted planning permission on appeal is to fulfil the quota required under the current guidance.

Jones said: "This, of course, is equally unpopular, highly expensive (around £1.5m per site) and incomprehensible to taxpayers in times of severe financial restraint."

Consultants commissioned by Cheshire West & Chester Council are reaching the final stages of their research to identify potential gypsy and traveller sites throughout the borough.

Jones concluded: "I would appeal for your help in ensuring unequivocal national planning guidance on this highly contentious and sensitive issue. Leaving local authorities to face a war of attrition without the benefit of strong national policy guidelines is unacceptable.

"If you believe that drastic change in the new guidelines is needed – then as Members of Parliament, you are, of course, in the best position to help achieve that change."

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