Posts Tagged 'van dwellers'

Greens need to answer questions on Gypsies and Travellers

Caroline Lucas’s Early Day Motion on Gypsies and Travellers leaves many questions unanswered, not least of which is how it relates to the situation in Brighton & Hove.

1)      She states that “there is no justification for the forced eviction of Gypsies and Travellers where no alternative lawful sites are available and residents seek to live in harmony”. We have an official site in Brighton & Hove – at Horsdean – so perhaps she would like to make a public statement supporting the efforts of the Council and Sussex Police to evict illegal encampments in the City such as those at Black Rock and Wild Park?

2)      Or perhaps she doesn’t think that in Brighton & Hove we have enough “satisfactory and culturally appropriate alternative accommodation” for gypsy and traveller families. In which case, perhaps she could be up front with residents and say exactly where she thinks this should be located in the City.

3)      What exactly does Caroline Lucas mean by seeking to “live in harmony”? I can’t recall ever receiving a single letter or e-mail from a resident welcoming an illegal traveller encampment near their home – perhaps she could enlighten us.

4)      It is certainly true that the children of gypsy and traveller families do significantly worse in terms of education and health outcomes, compared to other families and this is very unfortunate. However, this is not going to be addressed by allowing them to break the law.

5)      Where does Caroline Lucas stand on the issue of van dwellers in Brighton & Hove – in other words, non-ethnic gypsy and travellers who choose to live, unlawfully, on the City’s streets? Does she, for example, agree with the recent judgement at Brighton County Court that the Council was right to seek the eviction of van dwellers at Coldean Lane near the university and that we were not breaching their “human rights” as they had claimed? This is a very live issue in many parts of the City, not least with the summer season approaching and when I tried to raise it at a Council meeting last year, the Greens refused to have a constructive discussion.

As usual with the Greens we get lots of hand-wringing and sloganising but no concrete answers to the problems that residents want us to deal with. Putting forward Early Day Motions is all very laudable but what would they actually do?

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State control of the private rental market would be a big mistake

We had a very interesting Council meeting last week, which was dominated by debate over the Bright Start Nursery (I have blogged my statement on this below so won’t say anything more at this stage). But it was also particularly interesting in relation to a couple of housing matters.

Firstly, the Green Party and Labour Party united in coalition to support a notice of motion advocating state-control of the private rental market. In my view, this would be pure madness. Rent regulation has been tried before and failed. Economists from all sides of the political spectrum, have criticized rent regulation as economic illiteracy which, despite its good intentions, leads to the creation of less housing, raises prices, and increases urban blight. You can just imagine the stampede of private landlords out of the City if this was introduced – and in Brighton & Hove, which has one of the largest private rented sectors in the country, it would be disastrous for families and individuals who rely upon this type of housing.

In their motion, the Greens claimed that rents in the private sector have gone up so much in recent months that it is effectively pricing tenants out of the market. But what they don’t mention is that for most of 2008 and 2009, rental prices for 2 and 3 bedroom properties fell considerably due to the recession. In addition, if you look at the wider trend since 2001, rent rises have been on average lower than inflation over the same period.

It is also worth pointing out that for private tenants who claim housing benefit (or Local Housing Allowance as it is now called), it is the independent rent assessor who determines the level of benefit they can receive. The Government’s proposed reforms to housing benefit (much criticised by the Greens and Labour) – to effectively cap how much tenants can receive – are partly designed to bear down on private sector rent levels. This is because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that landlords push up their rents for housing benefit tenants because they know it will be covered by the public purse.

I am also slightly puzzled at the Labour Party’s support for the motion. For it was back in 2008 that the then Labour Government commissioned a review into the private rented sector – the ‘Rugg Review’. At no stage did this review consider that capping private sector rents would be advantageous. In fact, they identified the 1988 Housing Act, which lifted rent controls, as one of the main factors in the huge increase in supply of private sector rented properties over recent years. I don’t recall the Labour Group at the time making any representations on rent capping so it is a bit opportunist for them now to be jumping on the bandwagon!

Secondly, I asked our representative on the Sussex Police Authority – Green Party councillor Ben Duncan – what representations he had made on behalf of the residents of the City about squatters and van dwellers, issues which I know cause considerable concern and anger in our communities. His answer was very telling – he said that the Police put too many resources into dealing with these problems and that they should concentrate on other ‘priorities’. In other words, the Green’s position, were they ever to take control of the Council, would be to effectively turn a blind eye to these unlawful activities. Not for the first time (here and here) they have demonstrated a worrying contempt for the basic principles of law and order

Van dwellers – setting the record straight

Some of the reports that have come out following my decision to raise this matter at a Council meeting recently have been simply ridiculous. We are not targetting anyone, being hostile to a minority or demonising people. We are simply seeking to address an issue that has been raised.

I approach the issue of van dwellers from the standpoint that the law says that living on the highway is illegal. I also have serious concerns about the health and safety needs of van dwellers and nearby residents, the needs of children living in vans and the fact that there have been reports from residents of insanitary behaviour from some van dwellers. The original Notice of Motion I tabled with the support of my Conservative colleagues called for a new bye-law to be introduced and, after discussions with other councillors, I announced a working group, comprising all Parties on the Council and hopefully some outside agencies, such as the police.

There has also been some misinformation flying around about our housing responsibilities as a Council. Van dwellers have just the same rights as any other person to apply to the council as homeless or indeed to seek housing advice from our excellent housing options team. They will be assessed in exactly the same manner and if, genuinely found to be in priority need, they will be offered accommodation. In addition, all vans are visited by council officers to assess the health and welfare needs of the occupants. But we are under no obligation to offer a site where they can park their vans.

Many people objected to my raising this issue but as politicians it is our responsibility to respond to concerns raised by residents. If I had swept this under the carpet we would not have the cross-Party working group and nor would we be starting work towards managing the issue of van dwellers. 

I want to thank everyone who has written to me supporting the stance I have taken. Our work continues.


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