Senior councillors have praised the draft Gypsy/Traveller Needs Assessment by Opinion Research Services (ORS) for potentially saving “hundreds of thousands” of pounds for the authority and making planning policy “an awful lot more straightforward”.
However, some have challenged the report’s assertion around low numbers of unauthorised encampments, in recent (pandemic) times and questioned the depth of work being done with the communities.
Simon Milson, ELDC’s Planning Policy and Research Service Manager, told councillors: “There isn’t any need currently based on the low levels of population for any allocated sites at the moment.
“The demand and need that there will be potentially can be met by organic sites, and the windfall permissions that that come through.”
He said existing sites allocated within the 2016 local plan were now considered extra or additional.
The report before councillors said patterns of movement by the gypsy and traveller communities tended to be seasonal, increasing during the summer holidays.
It recommended the council could negotiate “stopping sites”, which include basic amenities, with landowners rather than creating new locations themselves.
The report did show a need when it came to travelling show people, however, stopped short of recommending allocated sites.
Chairman of the Planning Policy Committee Conservative Councillor Tom Ashton said the conclusion “made the task of this planning authority an awful lot more straightforward if we haven’t got to begin the business of finding a load more pitches which was always going to be challenging and contentious with communities.”
“A relatively limited requirement to make extra provision should amount to an incredible and quite significant saving on the public purse given that the costs involved of even doing Burgh le Marsh (one of the previous sites being worked on) were well into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
Some, however, were not convinced.
Labour Councillor Phyll Smith pointed to a section of the report which said there were “no unauthorised caravans recorded on land not owner by travellers in recent years” – other areas of the report noted unauthorised encampments in 2019 (10) and 2020 (12).
“I would challenge that,” he said. Certainly there have been some since COVID and prior to COVID – there might not have been any during the pandemic,” he added.
There was also criticism over a low number of interviews carried out with the community themselves.
Fellow Labour Councillor Tony Howard said more work needed to be done to collate the findings.
“If we don’t have sites, then we don’t have people to interview, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in the fact that if you don’t have the sites, the interviews are going to be zero, therefore, you conclude that the need is zero.
“That’s not the case. That’s sloppy,” he said.
Mr Milson said no-one was “denying” there were regular occurrences but that it was “irregular”.
He said he would take the feedback to ORS and ask them to check data against the councillors’ suggestions before the final report was completed.