Big fat gypsy waste of cash – council now spending £10k on consultants for Hartlepool traveller site

Land at Hart Smallholdings East, which was the second option for the gypsy site
Land at Hart Smallholdings East, which was the second option for the gypsy site

A COUNCIL which threw out a planning blueprint because of the furore over plans for a permanent gypsy and traveller site is spending £10,000 on consultants to assess the need for one in the first place.

Some angry councillors have slammed Hartlepool Borough Council’s Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment as a “waste of cash” as similar work had been carried out on the previous Local Plan axed in October.

That planning blueprint for the whole town had cost £1.5m and took five years to produce.

Officials say the new one is costing a further £250,000 but council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher believes the £10,000 gyspsy site consultancy work is a “sound investment” if it proves there is no need or demand for a permanent traveller base.

The council had initially identified land in Hart Village, as required under European Law, but the 15-year plan was axed after a majority of councillors backed a Labour Group motion and work started again.

A previous Tees Valley-wide study from 2009 highlighted the need for six to 10 pitches but in town just one request for a pitch was made by a member of the gypsy and traveller community as part of a council consultation.

The £10,000 figure was revealed at the regeneration services committee and planning chiefs said the work is to purely assess the need, not to identify a site.

They confirmed similar work has been done before, but argue it needs updating as most evidence bases need refreshing every five years and the evidence from 2009 will soon be out of date.

Consultants were used four years ago to assess the need across the region, but the site selection was done in-house by Hartlepool Council.

Chris Pipe, the council’s planning services manager, said: “An updated Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment is required to contribute towards the Local Plan evidence base.

“Throughout December discussions have taken place with prospective consultants with a specialism in housing need relating to gypsy and travellers with a view to undertaking a new GTAA for the period 2016 to 2031.

“It gives us credibility moving forward and we thought this was the best way to go.”

Contracts have yet to be exchanged with the chosen consultancy firm.

Damien Wilson, the council’s assistant director of regeneration, told the committee: “This is a very specialised and sensitive area.We need that robust evidence that will stand up to scrutiny by having something that is independent and impartial.”

The consultancy fee has sparked a mixed bag of responses from senior councillors, with some arguing it is worth the investment in the long-term while others have blasted it.

Labour group leader Coun Akers-Belcher, said: “From my point of view the investment in the consultancy is a sound investment if it allays the fears of residents, proves there is no need or demand for a site in Hartlepool and may prevent expenditure in excess of £1m on a site, which may never be required.

“Also the critics may add more value to their wards and the council if they came up with credible solutions and suggestions rather than focusing on small scale items within the council’s budget.”

Conservative group leader Ray Martin-Wells said: “Many people have been questioning why this was not done properly last time and you can only agree with that sentiment, but that is no excuse for getting it wrong a second time. I fully support this piece of work as last time only one person expressed an interest. To have a whole village put through the trauma they were for one request seems completely unbalanced.”

Putting Hartlepool First group spokesman, councillor Geoff Lilley, said: “I don’t see how they can come up with any different figures than what we have used for the Local Plan before, that was so foolishly scrapped.

“The council has had to start from scratch and for all this is a waste of money, it also shows what a waste of money scrapping the plan was in the first place.”

Councillor Jonathan Brash said: “Is it really beyond the ability of the council to work out whether there is a demand for gypsy and traveller sites, without paying £10,000 for yet another consultant, especially as we have done it once already?”

Consultants will produce their draft findings in June and the final report in July.

The Local Plan will go before a planning inspector next summer, at which point weight can be given to it, but it could take up to three years before it is fully adopted.