Dale Farm saga ‘unlikely’ to be repeated in Norfolk

For centuries, the travelling community has been part of British life.

But the scenes of conflict between police and protesters and the eviction of families at Dale Farm, near Basildon, this week has highlighted the fact that the accommodation plans of gipsies and travellers do not always go in harmony with the views of local authorities and residents.

As work continued to remove residents living at 51 unauthorised pitches in Essex yesterday, the EDP asked what was stopping a similar saga from happening in Norfolk and Suffolk.

And new figures obtained by the EDP under the Freedom of Information Act show that just half a dozen planning applications for new private and local authority gipsy and traveller sites were approved last year in Norfolk and north Suffolk.

Top-down targets previously set by the Labour government were scrapped by the coalition government in favour of 'light-touch guidance' encouraging local councils, in consultation with residents, to provide gipsy and traveller sites that reflect local and historic demand.

The guidance has seen many councils abandoning their Regional Spatial Strategy targets, which resulted in six sites in Norfolk and north Suffolk receiving planning permission in 2010/11.

Figures obtained following an FOI request revealed that three sites received planning permission in West Norfolk in South Creake, Walsoken, and Upwell in the last financial year, one in Briston in North Norfolk, one for new pitches at Swanton Road, Norwich, and one at Red Lodge, near Mildenhall.

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The scrapping of set targets comes after an Equality and Human Rights Commission report estimated that it would have taken councils 18 years to hit 2011 targets to deliver new gipsy and traveller sites.

John Leveridge, who restores traditional wagons and belongs to one of the oldest Romany gipsy families in the country, received permission for a six pitch site for his family at Carleton Rode two years ago. He said that it was difficult to secure permission for such sites, but Norfolk was one of the best counties for recognising the needs of the travelling community.

'I can not talk for all councils, but from experience Norfolk has been pretty fair. We expected objections because there are always people that don't want sites on their doorstep. We are always going to get that and when you've had to put up with it for so long, you do not give it a second thought.'

'We know we have to fight harder than anyone else and at the end of the day we understand that councils have their hands tied,' he said.

Mr Leveridge added that the majority of local people had accepted their presence after their plans prompted hundreds of letters of objection.

'The prejudice has got worse over the years and it will get worse now. I do not know anyone involved at Dale Farm, but I feel sorry for them because where are they going to go? They can not travel because the police will not let them travel,' he said.

Figures from the gipsy and traveller caravan count from January 2011 show that the East has the highest number of caravans in the south of England. Of those 4,417, almost 3,500 are on authorised sites and more than 800 are on illegal pitches, according to the figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller said there was unlikely to be an enforcement issue in Norfolk on the scale of Dale Farm because most councils preferred smaller sites of between six and eight pitches.

'The government says that we have to meet our need and that is not a light-touch. The risk is that urban authorities will say that they do not have any need and give it to the countryside.'

'We have a huge amount of sympathy with Basildon Council because we found ourselves in the same position four years ago on a smaller scale at Denton and after exhausting the legal process, we cleared the site and restored it to a green meadow. The council has to enforce because we can not have one rule for one group in society and change it for a different group,' he said.

The Joint Core Strategy for the Greater Norwich area is looking to deliver a minimum of 78 pitches between 2012 and 2026, with 20 expected in Norwich and 20 in Broadland. South Norfolk Council is currently awaiting the outcome of research to identify the need for extra gipsy and traveller sites.

Officials at the Borough Council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk said they were currently reviewing their targets whilst North Norfolk District Council said it had no specific target.

A Breckland Council spokesman said they were aiming to deliver a permanent site with eight pitched by March 2013, subject to securing a site and funding.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said a consultation on the government's draft planning policy for traveller sites ended in August. The results from the government's consultation to reform the planning system - the National Planning Policy Framework - which ended this week will also be fed into the new policy.