Rother steps up its search for new sites for travellers

PLANS for new traveller sites in Rother will start gathering pace this summer as the district council attempts to tackle the shortage of provision for gypsy families in the area.

The authority has been under pressure to find land for a new permanent site to house gypsy and traveller families, as the only official site in Rother, located in Fair Lane in Robertsbridge, is overcrowded and has a waiting list.

As a result, the last few years have seen a number of travellers settle on land in Rother without planning permission, as they felt they had nowhere else to go.

The issue was highlighted by the case of Linda Smith, a gypsy who made her home on land at Telham Lane in Battle.

Linda had lived at Beeches Brook since September 2007, but risked being ejected from the site by Rother District Council following a series of planning breaches.

But following an appeal in February 2010, the Government Planning Inspectorate granted permission for her to keep her mobile home on the site for another two-and-a-half years.

The two-and-a-half year extension was granted to allow Rother District Council time to find land for a new travellers’ site.

But the authority has come under fire from residents and town and parish councils, including Battle Town Council, for not working quickly enough to resolve the issue.

David Marlow, planning strategy manager at Rother, said the authority was waiting for guidance from central Government about the number of pitches it would need to provide.

But the change of government in 2010 resulted in a change of policy, shifting the onus on to district and borough councils to identify how many pitches are needed.

Mr Marlow said: “The difficulty we have had is determining how many sites we needed to identify, since until very recently, as with housing, we were expecting to be told by Government through the regional assembly what that would be.

“But the change of government and axing of the process of setting regional numbers has frustrated our ability to look for sites.

“Councils across the south east would have been in the same position.”

Mr Marlow says Rother has decided it needs 11 pitches in total, with five pitches to be open by 2016, and a further six to be ready by 2028.

But rather than one large site like Robertsbridge, which has eight pitches, Rother intends to create four or five smaller sites for individual families, containing just one or two pitches.

A number of these smaller sites can currently be found in the district.

Sites at Greenacres in Battle and Buckholt Lane, north of Sidley, both have permanent planning permission whilst four other one-pitch sites in Battle, Dallington, Ewhurst and Flimwell have temporary planning permission.

There are currently no traveller sites in Rother without some form of planning permission.

According to Mr Marlow, planning inspectors have been “sympathetic” to granting temporary planning permission in light of there currently being little alternative for travellers in the district.

Another option for the council would be to allow existing sites with temporary planning permission to remain, but each case will be considered on its merits, says Mr Marlow.

He said the council has looked at “many many” locations across Rother in its search for a potential site, with nowhere being ruled out.

Mr Marlow said: “Where we are at the moment is we have done a major search of all the available public land, land owned by the gypsy and traveller community and privately owned sites where we think there may be potential for pitches as part of another development.

“The expansion of existing sites is under consideration as well as completely new sites.”

But he added there was “no suggestion” of moving other families on to the Robertsbridge site, which is owned by East Sussex County Council.

Mr Marlow said: “I have got to say none of the options are easy.

“If we had a big brownfield site the council owned just sitting there doing nothing, then we would have taken it up.

“The options will all have strengths and weaknesses.”

The recently-approved Hastings to Bexhill Link Road, which has also been cited as a reason for holding up the search for land, could open up options for traveller sites in the future.

But Mr Marlow said: “It’s not something we are focusing on.

“It’s perhaps one option for our long term need, but not the pressing need.”

An initial list of sites is due to be put before Rother District Council Cabinet committee in June, before a six week public consultation is launched.

The list will then be whittled down and a final consultation on the proposed sites will take place, with members of the public allowed to make representations.An independent enquiry will follow.

See the Battle, Rye and Bexhill Observers for regular updates on Rother District Council’s plans for travellers.