Posted: 28.07.20 at 17:22 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
West Compton residents say they are being let down by local councils’ failure to provide adequate travellers’ sites across the entire county.
The group of residents near Shepton Mallet claim they now have more travellers living in their area than permanent inhabitants.
The residents of West Compton, a small hamlet of 28 people to the west of Shepton Mallet, have criticised the district council’s approach to allocating travellers’ pitches across the district, claiming they have been "politically discriminated against and victimised” as a result.
Mendip District Council has said due process has been followed with granting planning permission for any pitches in the area.
Plans for three new pitches at the Knowle Ground off Ridge Road in the hamlet were approved by the council’s planning board on August 21, 2019.
This came in spite of opposition from local residents, who claim there are 11 traveller sites with around 60 people living on them in the area around their settlement and near the western edge of Shepton Mallet.
Gillian Barker claimed at the meeting on August 21 that West Compton travellers made up “more than double the settled residents” in the hamlet.
She added: “The settled community feel that we are being politically discriminated against and victimised.”
Local people have raised concerns that travellers have been buying up land, getting planning permission (often retrospectively) for pitches, and then living there permanently.
In June 2020, the district council’s planning board ruled that two pitches recently created in Butleigh near Glastonbury would be allowed to remain – despite reports of “intimidation” of the public and the occupants being in breach of planning regulations.
In addition to specific concerns about the Knowle Ground site, West Compton residents feel they were not properly consulted about plans for travellers’ provision in the area.
In a joint letter to Mendip’s deputy chief executive Tracy Aarons, the residents allege they were “not notified” about the Knowle Ground plans, and that notices erected on site contained “incorrect” information about the proposals.
They said: “The council’s planning department made it so difficult for residents to learn about these applications.
“Only two members of the board which met on August 21 had taken the trouble to actually visit the site in question – one a local councillor familiar with the site and the background, and the other from Frome.
“Both these members voted against the application whereas the remaining members, with no knowledge of the site, voted in favour. Apart from not visiting the site none of these members took the trouble to talk to any West Compton residents.
“Despite numerous complaints from residents, the council has taken absolutely no remedial action over any illegal sites in the area.”
The number of travellers’ pitches required in Somerset is determined by a “site allocation document”, written by the four district councils and Somerset County Council.
Mendip has admitted the last full assessments of demand for pitches was carried out in 2011, with the new version of the allocation document being “still at an early stage of development”.
Resident Richard Woodhouse said the council was failing local residents by not having a wider strategy to provide travellers’ accommodation across the whole of Somerset.
He said: “The council is not fulfilling its responsibilities to identify permanent and transit sites for travellers and gypsies county-wide.
“We are not racist nor ‘anti-traveller’ – we have a sympathy to their plight, and have a significant number of both approved and unapproved sites within a mile and a half of our delightful hamlet.
“But this issue will not top away, and the longer the council does not grasp the nettle then the harder the growing problem becomes to resolve.”
Mendip District Council has said more than 50 letters were sent to residents in and around West Compton ahead of the decision on the Knowle Ground – and that it received 30 responses, with 19 being in support and 11 being objections.
Planning officer Kelly Pritchard said that the huge demand for pitches in the district overruled local concerns about the impact on the local landscape.
She said in her written report: “There is a total shortfall of 78 pitches, taking into account the 26 pitches that have been permitted since 2010.
“Some objectors have stated that there are too many gypsy and traveller sites in the local area, especially around West Compton, and as such the local gypsy and traveller community is out of balance with the local settled community.
“However, there is no substantive evidence that this proposal would result in significant harm to the settled community through an increase in an amount of gypsy and traveller sites, or that the cumulative impact would dominate the settled community or result in undue pressure on local infrastructure.”
The council has said it will take enforcement issues on the Knowle Ground site and elsewhere in the district seriously.
A spokeswoman said: “We have a team of enforcement officers who respond to all enforcement matters, in line with adopted local guidance and national policy and legislation.
“We have a duty to consider all planning applications that are submitted on their own merits,and in accordance with adopted policy at both the local and national level.”