Nearly 100 planning refusals by the British government for halting sites for Travellers and gypsies in England are open to legal challenge, following a high court ruling that it breached the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In July 2013,secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles took over powers to make final decisions about all halting site applications in the green belt, lands designated as protected from development.
However, the high court in London ruled today that Mr Pickles had breached British equality legislation and the ECHR in two cases taken by Romany gypsies by deciding himself, rather than leaving the matter in the hands of planning inspectors.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Gilbart, sitting in Cardiff, said "the great majority" of such applications were from travellers and gypsies and that Mr Pickles's action had led to "considerable delay in the hearing and determination of those appeals".
Romany gypsies, Charmaine Moore and Sarah Coates, who were supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, claimed Mr Pickles had breached the 2010 Equality Act 2010 which led to "unlawful indirect discrimination" against them.
The Conservative minister’s actions, which he amended last September to cover three-quarters of all applications, rather than all of them, had put gypsies and travellers “at a disadvantage”, since their cases took “far longer” to be dealt with.
Warning that a significant number of other planning appeals are now in doubt, Mr Justice Gilbart said the situation has come about because Mr Pickles ignored warnings from his civil servants and his department’s chief planning officer.
In one of the cases before the court, Charmaine Moore, a single mother of three, had applied for planning permission for a mobile home and caravan on land she owned in Bromley.
Her application was refused first by the local council and, later, by a planning inspector, but that decision was overturned by the high court. That ruling was upheld by the court of appeal in October 2013. Later, it was reconsidered and Mr Pickles rejected it.
Barrister, Timothy Jones, who represented Ms Moore and her co-claimant, said the judgment would have "significant implications" for all planning decisions made by Mr Pickles, who has been under pressure from local residents to reject halting sites.
Mr Pickles had never, said Mr Jones, taken a softer line on traveller halting sites than the planning inspectors had. “Sometimes, it was the same. Sometimes it was tougher, but it was never softer,” Mr Jones told The Irish Times.
Welcoming the ruling, the Traveller Movement said "justice has been done". The secretary of state's claims that he has been trying to make the planning rules "fair for all" has now been "exposed as hollow".
The Conservative minister, it said, is engaged on “what appears to be an unlawful crusade to try to drive the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers into the sea by using any means possible to deny them a place to live?”