At a Derbyshire Dales District Council meeting, faced with the prospect of choosing from a list of 133 potential authority-owned Traveller plots, councillors, one by one, outright dismissed almost every single plot.
A two-hour debate over the sites saw almost every councillor for each ward reject all of the potential council-owned plots within their area, offering very short reasons for rebuffing them.
This included all 25 plots in Matlock, 21 in Bakewell, 17 in Ashbourne, 12 in Wirksworth and 11 in Darley Dale – with the majority being council car parks and others being empty plots of land or playing fields.
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That move led to accusations of gamesmanship and a lack of goodwill.
Cllr Garry Purdy, leader of the council, and Cllr Dawn Greatorex, were the only councillors to put forward any sites for closer consideration as “maybes”.
This included Cllr Purdy suggesting part of the Temple Road car park, Artist’s Corner and Tinti’s Yard – all in Matlock Bath – and Cllr Greatorex suggesting a site close to the cemetery in Middleton could have potential.
After the lengthy debate, Cllr Richard FitzHerbert suggested that the council pass the issue back to officers and disregard the 133 sites in favour of their expertise to find other sites in the district in private ownership.
He later agreed that this would include officers looking closer at the four sites suggested in Matlock Bath and Middleton.
This latest debate over temporary Traveller sites comes a year after the authority rejected plans from officers to assign a number of temporary sites on which two homeless Gypsy and Traveller families could stay for up to eight weeks, before being rotated to another plot.
That move left the council in the current position in which the two families cannot be evicted from sites on which they stay on – because they do not have an approved site to move them to.
Alongside this, the authority continues to admit that it has failed for decades to provide a permanent Traveller site, after countless plots have been rejected and costly searches by private consultants have led to none being adopted or deemed suitable.
This position has led the council to spend thousands of pounds of taxpayer money and endless hours of its legal capacity to manage and enforce evictions of Traveller and Gypsy families staying where they are not authorised.
Two families who have declared themselves legally homeless have not been provided with a place to call home and the authority is now said to be edging towards being pulled before court due to failing its homelessness obligations.
These families are currently staying on the Matlock train station car park and the Clifton Road car park in Ashbourne respectively.
Tim Braund, director of regulatory services at the council, said the two homeless families did not want to share a plot, leaving the authority looking for two separate temporary sites in the first instance.
Cllr Purdy told the meeting: “There is a lot of criticism that this authority has failed in its duties to find a permanent site, the simple reason for that is that nobody wants these people. We have gone out to advert over land for the past decade.
“Roger Yarwood, a previous planning officer at this authority said he had been trying for 20 years.”
He agreed the two families could not be placed on the same site, sharing that the council is currently in talks with a private landowner over a potential permanent plot
Cllr Purdy said: “It is not a game, it is a serious issue and we have got two families that are being pushed around and pushed around and pushed around because people do not like the lifestyle.
“I have accommodated them for two humanitarian reasons. This has been going on for donkeys years.
“I would like to find people outside this room who can come up with a suggestion as to where they should go.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed that the latest offer from a gentleman, a landowner, will provide us with that permanent site.”
Cllr Peter Slack said: “At the end the travellers will decide where they are going, because we can come up with a site and put it forward, but they probably won’t go there, they go where they want to go, we can advise them but we can’t make them go there. We need more input from the Travellers, really.”
Cllr Sue Bull, chairman, said: “That is sometimes what we do do, but we have a duty to show that we are proactively doing this. We can’t be taken to say we haven’t looked at it, that we haven’t tried our best to do what we are doing.
“We are slowly getting threatened to the fact that we could end up going to court over not fulfilling our duties.”
Asked about the prospects of the 17 potential Ashbourne sites, Cllr Tom Donnelly (Ashbourne ward councillor) said: “I wish there was. Myself and other ward members have looked around Ashbourne both in town and on the outskirts and there is nothing that is tolerated or that is suitable in our ward at all.”
Fellow Ashbourne councillor Stuart Lees said: “We have looked hard and we have got to find somewhere but there is nowhere on this list in Ashbourne that is suitable.”
Councillors had looked to exclude all potential sites in the Peak District National Park, but Cllr Peter O’Brien made clear the peak authority did not have a policy banning Traveller sites and would accept them in “exceptional circumstances”.
Cllr Tony Morley said: “I already do have in my ward, Norbury, a Traveller site, and have for three years, five families who have become extremely good neighbours. We have been hosting these good neighbours for three years now but there is nowhere else I can find for these particular families.”
The site in Grove Lane, Somersal Herbert, with four pitches, was approved at a planning appeal in October last year after it had been rejected by the council itself.
Cllr Sue Burfoot accused councillors in other parties of “playing a game”.
She said: “I think the people of Matlock have been very tolerant of the site at the station car park.
“We have got another site at Ashbourne where they are at the moment, and you are saying, Ashbourne members, that they are not suitable, so if, and I suspect nobody else comes up with a site on this list, if we were to come up and say as a temporary measure – maybe because there haven’t been serious problems at that one in Matlock – then we could end up with both families in Matlock and that would be a recipe for disaster so I am certainly not putting forward tonight any suggestion.”
Cllr David Hughes, a Matlock ward member, said: “I am going to apply the same criteria to the choice of sites in Matlock as the Ashbourne councillors have done in Ashbourne, and I am sorry and I am going to shrug my shoulders at this point, but I can’t see any site that is at all appropriate for Travellers in Matlock, just as the Ashbourne councillors couldn’t find any site in Ashbourne that was appropriate.”
He continued: “There is goodwill from us but we have got to see it matched with our counterparts in similar-sized towns, not in Matlock Bath which is a severely constrained location and I just don’t see how it is appropriate for Travellers.
“The problem is, we are not getting the buy-in from another part of the district where the Travellers need to be, and until we get that buy-in we can’t move forward.
“I just despair because I feel like we have failed again, for the third time.”
Cllr FitzHerbert said: “This has been discussed ever since I’ve been on the council, that is 12 years now, and I am sure the officers have a very good grasp on where they might want to go on sites that are not on this list.
“I think we actually have had a good fair process today in dismissing an awful lot of sites, recreation grounds, playing fields, ponds, whatever they were, that I don’t know.
“The officers know their job about this. I would like to propose that we let them continue their search because it is in all our interests , they know the ground, they know what they are doing and we dismiss those sites that we have been talking about tonight.”
James McLaughlin, the council’s director of corporate and customer services and monitoring officer, warned councillors who had said “absolutely not” to any of the proposed 133 sites needed to consider whether they have predetermined their decisions on those plots and speak to him “sooner rather than later”.