Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 103) (HC 948) on 2002-03 Special Grant for Gypsy Sites Refurbishment

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Mr. Osborne: May I pick the Minister up on what he just said about these particular schemes being aimed at gypsies and Irish travellers? Can he expand on exactly what he meant? Is that a different definition of gypsies from the more general one that includes travellers that he has just given?

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Mr. McNulty: Again, with the greatest respect—this will underline some of the other comments that have been made—the measure is not aimed at anybody. It is aimed at the refurbishment of existing sites. Many Members have made comments about new sites and choice, but the choice is of a limited population of existing sites. Those existing sites, overwhelmingly if not exclusively, are provided for travellers—Irish travellers and gypsies, both of which groups come under the broad definition from 1968 to which I and the hon. Member for Cotswold have alluded. There is nothing more sinister in it than that.

Given that those sites are all provided by local authorities and that those local authorities are, in the main, either local planning authorities or have responsibility for planning policy, the sites are all effectively planning policy guidance proof. That is not just in terms of agriculture and the green belt, but across the broad range of PPGs and planning policy. Among the criteria considered in awarding the grants, councils are expected to have rigorous monitoring and inspection schemes in place to account for the money, which is only right and proper with the disposal of any public funds. The broader criteria are outlined in annexe C of the report.

I appreciate what the hon. Member for Cotswold and others said about the concerns of communities. This measure must start to address those, by refurbishing existing sites and bringing them up to an acceptable level. It does not address the issue of unauthorised encampments. The new guidance will start that process. This measure does not provide all that we need for such sites. Decisions relating to that will be made later, informed by the robust research coming from Heriot-Watt and Birmingham universities. This measure is not a magic wand that will do everything, but it is part of the overall process. I am more than aware of those concerns. I could regale the Committee for the next 20 minutes about experiences in my own constituency, but I shall not. That is not what the measure is about. The research that we are publishing, which we shall need to take stock of, and the new guidance, will seek to address those matters.

The new sites and the locations chosen for them have been mentioned. By definition, the criteria are limited. There were no applications for new sites, nor does the measure cover new sites and where to put them. That is something that we might need to address, in consultation with the Local Government Association and others. This measure concerns only the refurbishment of existing sites.

Because those are existing sites, and are all publicly owned—none is privately owned—there are existing communities on them. The relevant agencies, such as social services and education services, take care of those communities. This order does not do that and I as a Minister from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister do not cover that matter. Hopefully, given that those are public agencies and publicly funded, nothing in the legal framework covering the provision of medical, educational and other services for those communities changes. The refurbishment of existing sites will bring no changes to that, only improvements.

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I take the point about top-slicing. It is a fair point, but I do not agree with it. We shall move on. There were 86 bids altogether from 50 authorities, 57 of which were accepted. Given that this is a three-year programme, some bids that were successful last year may have done enough as a one-off to refurbish and bring up to speed a particular site. For some sites, that process may be ongoing. Some of the larger sites, where bids involve quite considerable sums, need considerable refurbishment. I would ask anyone who wants to see that money being spent to tootle down the road to the Westway site under the A40, not terribly far from here, to see how easy it is to spend considerable amounts of money trying to update such projects.

I will get back to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) because I am not entirely sure how many other London boroughs applied. Certainly the Westway site in Kensington and Chelsea and the site in Hackney are long and well-established, and are constantly refurbished. I do not know off-hand how many other London boroughs have existing sites covered by the scheme, but I shall get back to my hon. Friend and the Committee on that. I think that covers her point.

The gypsy site research will consider current provision and the need for further provision. Those matters are important but they are outwith the measure. I would ask every Member who has had concerns today to follow that through. I was very good at using the words ''hopefully'', ''maybe'' and ''potentially'' when I was a Whip. That is one lesson that I have learned well, which I can continue to put into practice. Hopefully, by the end of the summer recess, that research and the other items will be published.

As if by magic, I am now told that Bexley, Croydon, Hillingdon, Southwark and Tower Hamlets also applied in this round, and people should take seriously what I said earlier. Given that often during a three-year plan successful one-offs are sufficient for the immediate future, those boroughs and others who were unsuccessful will be exhorted to apply next year if they have been unsuccessful in the first two years. In many cases, boroughs were successful last year. I shall write to clarify that further.

With the greatest respect to whoever brought it up, the consultation point was rather obtuse, since that is the domain of the authority with the site. If an authority consulted local people on whether officer hours should be spent applying to make an existing site even better, we could guess what the result of the consultation might be. As to whether there was consultation or not, that is a matter for local authorities. If I have missed—

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose—

Mr. Salter rose—

Mr. McNulty: Clearly I have.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister has covered most of my points. The important one that he has not covered is the quality of provision on the sites. Will he explain the minimum provision that he would expect the grants to provide?

Mr. McNulty: The whole purpose of the programme is to improve sites. I should need to get back to the hon. Gentleman to explain the minimum provision for a site. I should hope that it is more than exists already, which is the whole purpose of the programme. How many would need funding year-on-year to reach an absolute benchmark that we would prefer as a matter of policy I do not know, but the research will inform us on that. That, and the unsatisfied demand that was referred to earlier, are elements that we will get back to in the light of that research.

Guidance is winging its way to me—it never did when I was a Whip. In the main the refurbishment will be of a permanent nature: matters such as boundaries, toilets, kitchens, road access, management offices and so on. Clearly, that does not answer the point about what the minimum provision is on some of the sites, and I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on that, but the refurbishment is about more than simple cosmetics. In some cases when a small bid has been successful, it may be to improve the fencing or security. In some of the more substantive bids, it is because some elements simply do not exist at the moment.

Mr. Salter: One of the advantages of sitting here is that one can catch a glimpse of the notes that are passing frequently to the Minister. I noticed the word ''Berkshire'' on one of them, but the Minister obviously ran out of time. Could I press him to ask his

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officials to drop me a line explaining which Berkshire authorities did apply? It would be entirely in keeping with the inefficiency and incompetence of West Berkshire council if it failed to apply for Government resources, despite having a site in its location. I am particularly interested in Wokingham and West Berkshire.

Mr. McNulty: At the risk of disappointing my hon. Friend, I understand that the only Berkshire authority that applied, other than those which were successful, was Slough. I shall write to him about other Berkshire authorities and those which may have been successful last year and have not needed to bid subsequently.

Richard Younger-Ross: With regard to authorities that did not apply for grant last year or this year, did they not do so because their sites are very good or because they are reluctant landlords? I should be grateful if the Minister would write to me telling me what areas have not applied.

Mr. McNulty: If it is a relatively easy exercise, I shall certainly do that. It may be that those authorities do not have existing sites so, by definition, are not part of the qualifying population of authorities that could apply. If there is something to say, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 103) (HC 948), on 2002-03 Special Grant for Gypsy Sites Refurbishment.

        Committee rose at eleven minutes past Five o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Baird, Vera
Brazier, Mr.
Clifton-Brown, Mr.
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Hoey, Kate
Lawrence, Mrs.
McNulty, Mr.

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Mahon, Mrs.
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Osborne, Mr. George
Salter, Mr.
Sanders, Mr.
Winnick, David
Younger-Ross, Richard

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