‘Costly’ search to find permanent sites for traveller families in Derbyshire Dales draws a blank

Travellers occupied one of the car parks at Matlock Bath station in January this year.
Travellers occupied one of the car parks at Matlock Bath station in January this year.

Consultants hired by a council to find permanent sites for traveller families failed to find anywhere appropriate.

A subsequent public ‘call for sites’ was issued, and this too has so far failed to find any appropriate space.

The issue facing Derbyshire Dales District Council and its legal obligation to find suitable and permanent sites on which traveller families can call home, has dragged on for decades.

Its legal obligation is contained in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

Chief executive of the authority, Paul Wilson, has said that the issue has haunted the district for 25 years.

Now, it has come to light that last ditch efforts to find sites, through both the hiring of consultants and a public ‘call for sites’ have both failed to find anywhere suitable.

The cost associated with the consultants has not yet been revealed but council officials have previously referred to them as “costly”.

Last summer, the authority said that the cost of developing a new traveller pitch would be £112,128.

In November, councillors agreed to hire the experts to search the open market and privately-owned land, with a view to buying it and turning into a permanent traveller site.

A report this week, ahead of a meeting of the community and environment committee on Wednesday, June 26, says that the consultants came back in February with seven possible sites.

These have now been revealed as: An area of meadow land at Winster; the Woodyard at Homesford; Mayfield Road Service Station at Ashbourne; Thatch Meadow Barn at Brassington; land at Smith Hall Lane at Hulland Ward; land at Fenny Bentley; and Leys Farm in Ashbourne.

These were all ruled out by the district council, largely due to the possibility of a ‘detrimental impact on neighbouring amenity’.

A month later, on March 8, the authority launched a public ‘call for sites’ which is still ongoing, for residents to put forward sites which they felt would meet the particular criteria needed for a permanent traveller pitch.

At the time, it had been said that ‘findings will be considered alongside sites put forward by a team of consultants who have been scouring the district since the start of the year’.

We now know all these findings had already been ruled out.

Only two suggestions came forward from the call for sites, one in Swadlincote, which is outside of the Derbyshire Dales, and another at a care home in Derby Road, Ashbourne.

Both sites were not considered suitable.

Now the council has asked its consultants to try again at finding sites, by working with land owners more closely to try and reach an agreement to either develop their land or sell it to the authority.

The report says: “This is obviously a sensitive piece of work and results are still awaited.”

It has also suggested that it approaches government departments and agencies along with local government bodies to see if they have any excess sites which they would be willing to part with.

It is then suggested that utility companies, the private sector and agricultural landowners are all approached for help.

If any of these bear fruit, the council’s consultants would assess the suitability of each site.

In the same report, the council also reveals that a traveller family that had camped in the Fishpond Meadows car park in Ashbourne and at the town’s leisure centre, followed by a stay in Matlock Bath, had now moved to the car park at Old Station Close, Rowsley.

This was despite the council agreeing in December to allocate a ‘temporary tolerated’ site at Middleton Road, Wirksworth.

Council officers have met with the family and provided them with water, toilets and a perimeter fence and have now come to the conclusion that it is an acceptable temporary site – to be used ‘throughout the summer months’.

Despite this, the family are said to have now moved to the Agricultural Business Centre in Bakewell – where they have previously camped.

Councillors are being asked to approve that the council direct the family back to Rowsley.

The Rowsley site, however, ‘is not considered to be suitable as a permanent site, not least because it lies on the line of the proposed extension of the Peak Rail line and the White Peak Loop cycle way. Therefore there remains a need to find a suitable permanent site’.

Since the start of 2017, the family in question have been at fault for 21 unauthorised encampments, which require excessive council and court orders to resolve.

Meanwhile, other traveller families have been the cause of a further 17 unauthorised encampments during the same time period.

Another update in the report is on a request from councillors last year to look into installing barriers at some of the district’s car parks, particularly in Matlock Bath, to prevent travellers moving in illegally.

The costs vary widely from £1,000 to install unmanned lockable gates; £5,000 installation and £50,000 annual per site staff costs for manned lockable gates; £2,000 per location for height barriers; or £60,800 for automated low level pay-on-exit barriers.

For the latter option, the council would also have to pay to install a mains power supply for each entry, exit and pay station, along with numerous other major works.

As it stands, the district council is struggling to secure six permanent traveller pitches by next year – which under the Act it is legally obliged to do.

It says that managing unauthorised encampments is currently taking up a vast amount of officer time and a ‘drain’ on its resources – at the expense of other projects.

Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service