Derbyshire Dales MP accused of using Traveller site situation to 'gain political capital'

Derbyshire Dales MP Sarah Dines has responded to criticism of her latest comments on the district’s long-running failure to find accommodation sites to for Travellers, after a local councillor suggested she had nothing to contribute beyond political posturing.
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In a Facebook post on Sunday, February 4, Ms Dines addressed Derbyshire Dales District Council’s ongoing attempts to solve a problem which has dogged the authority for years.

With a General Election on the horizon, she expressed frustration at the coalition council revisiting decisions taken under the Tory regime which was deposed in 2023.

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She said: “You may recall that last year the Liberal Democrat-led Council floated the idea of putting a whole host of unsuitable sites back on the agenda, such as Bakewell, Rowsley and Ashbourne at the Fishponds.

Derbyshire Dales MP Sarah Dines.Derbyshire Dales MP Sarah Dines.
Derbyshire Dales MP Sarah Dines.

“These sites aren’t suitable for the Traveller families, nor residents, which is why the Conservative administration removed them from plans when they were in power.

“Whilst the current Liberal Democrat administration have 'postponed' their decision to put these sites back on the agenda, they haven’t ruled them out. I really hope they take action to take these sites off the agenda and find a permanent site, because communities like Matlock have had to cope with a temporary site much longer than they were previously told.”

She added: “As I did with the previous Conservative administration, I am calling on the Liberal Democrat-led council to get a grip of this issue and find a solution that serves residents and the Traveller families.”

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However, some who read the post were unsure what it would mean for the council to ‘get a grip’, given officers have made repeated efforts to identify suitable sites and been thwarted by planning technicalities, community resistance and other obstacles.

The Woodyard site off The A6, several miles from Cromford.The Woodyard site off The A6, several miles from Cromford.
The Woodyard site off The A6, several miles from Cromford.

The most recent attempt failed at an advanced stage when the owner of the Woodyard, near Cromford, opted to sell the land to a third party, having spent years lobbying the council to develop it as a Traveller site.

In November, council leaders said: “We are satisfied our officers moved as quickly as possible to initiate quotes for various essential site investigation surveys, including a valuation, topographical survey, architectural design, tree survey, drainage design, highways design including new access, soft and hard landscaping and acoustic fences. The timing of this work naturally relied on consent by the landowners to access the site.

“We also note from early survey results that the site would have presented significant – and potentially expensive – challenges to upgrade it to the required standards. These challenges were not evident when the landowners submitted their planning application two months ago.”

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Following the collapse of that scheme, six weeks ago the council approved recommendations from its cross-party Traveller Working Group to introduce a new community consultation process, new evaluation criteria for sites, the appointment of land agents to search for viable plots and funding for a dedicated officer to assist the process.

Given those moves, several respondents to Ms Dines’ post suggested that if she was keen to see certain sites definitively ruled out again, it may be constructive to specify alternatives and engage with political opponents in a united approach.

Sarah Halliwell, a Labour member of Darley Dale Town Council, explicitly challenged Ms Dines to outline her favoured solutions in this newspaper.

Cllr Halliwell said: “I am delighted that our MP is passionately committed to solving the prolonged failure of the Conservative-led council to fulfil its legal duty in providing a permanent Traveller site.

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“Given Ms Dines’ deep involvement and in-depth knowledge of this issue, I am eager to hear her proposed solution. A solution that works for all her constituents. Or is her approach simple? Blame others and distract to gain political capital?”

Taking up the gauntlet, Ms Dines said: “Clearly Cllr Halliwell is not an avid reader of the Matlock Mercury, because if she was, she would have seen me take to task the previous and current council administration on this issue many times in my weekly column.

“The only ones with the power to find a permanent Traveller site are the district council, no matter who is in charge at the time, so whilst I am urging them to take action, I cannot force them to. What I do know is that things seem to take a very long time and whilst we wait, Travellers and residents alike are being failed.”

Looking back rather than forward, she added: “My preferred solution was the approved site at the Woodyard, which clearly had merit as the planning committee voted it through. I also know, having met with Siobhan Spencer from the Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group, that this was the preferred site of the Traveller families.

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“Unfortunately, the Labour and Liberal Democrat-led coalition at the council did not pursue this in time and this opportunity lapsed. Which was disappointing for absolutely everyone involved.

“Council officers identified issues that needed to be resolved at the Woodyard, but the council itself clearly considered these to be surmountable or they would surely not have given planning permission. Once permission was granted they should have acted speedily to secure the site. It is shameful that the opportunity was lost.

“The sites such as Bakewell, Rowsley and the Fishponds were taken off the table by the Conservatives. This decision provided clarity for everyone involved. Carparks are not a suitable long-term home for vulnerable people. The fact the current Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and independent coalition at the council have postponed taking these unsuitable sites off the agenda just causes worry and anxiety for everyone.

“I maintain that the Woodyard was a good option, clearly the planning committee thought so too. I just hope that when the next appropriate site comes along the council do not hesitate.”

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“I urge the council to advertise for land, to think outside the box and find a solution that serves residents and Travellers alike. They have officers dedicated to working on these issues, it is time we see progress. I note the council has belatedly resolved to appoint a land agent to identify appropriate sites. I look forward to seeing what is brought forward. I am dedicated to helping in any way I can.”

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