Pickles intervention 'unlawful'
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has "unlawfully discriminated" against Romany gypsies wanting pitches in the Green Belt, the High Court has ruled.
In a ruling likely to affect many other travellers, a judge said both human rights and equality laws were breached by Mr Pickles and his department "calling in" cases which would normally be considered by his planning inspectors.
The judge said Mr Pickles was operating a legally flawed policy of "recovering" for his own consideration appeals by travellers who claim there are exceptional circumstances for allowing them Green Belt sites.
Mr Justice Gilbart, sitting in London, said an inspectors' decision was normally received within eight weeks of the end of an inquiry - but it could take six months or more for a decision letter for a called-in case.
No attempt had been made by Mr Pickles and his ministers to follow steps required by the 2010 Equality Act to avoid indirect discrimination, and "substantial delays" had occurred in dealing with the appeals in violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, said the judge.
His test-case ruling was a victory for two Romany gypsies - Charmaine Moore, a single mother with three children who is under threat of eviction from a site at North Cudham in the London borough of Bromley, and Sarah Coates, a disabled woman also with three children fighting to live temporarily on Green Belt land at Sutton-at-Hone near Dartford, Kent.
The judge said Mr Pickles' department had "coined and developed" a practice in 2013-2014 of calling in all, and then a majority, of Green Belt traveller cases - most involving Romany gypsies or Irish travellers - "which discriminated unlawfully against a racial group".
He ruled that the Moore and Coates cases were two such "unlawful recoveries" and quashed them.
Planning Minister Brandon Lewis said: "This Government makes no apologies for seeking to safeguard Green Belt protection and trying to bring a sense of fair play to the planning system.
"The Government's planning policy is clear that both temporary and permanent traveller sites are inappropriate development in the Green Belt. Today's judgment does not question that principle."
But the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supported the gypsy challenge, welcomed the judge's finding of indirect discrimination.
An EHRC spokesman said: "We have a duty to protect everyone from discrimination and ensure that the law is applied fairly, consistently and equally for all.
"We understand the need to be sensitive about Green Belt development but this should not be used to single out individuals for unlawful discrimination.
"Planning decisions should be taken on the merits of an application, not the characteristics of the applicant."
Gypsy and traveller leaders have condemned Mr Pickles' policy which, they argue, has enabled him to predominantly overturn recommendations to allow site planning appeals.
They say local councils have consistently failed to earmark land for potential sites in local plans, and many gypsies and travellers have bought land, including in the Green Belt, to develop sites for themselves.