By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs, BBC News
Unauthorised encampments are potentially avoidable, say MPs
The row around Gypsy and traveller sites is threatening to become a major election issue for the first time.
Q: What are the Conservatives proposing?
Conservative leader Michael Howard says his party would do more to stop unauthorised traveller sites. He says Gypsy communities are using the Human Rights Act to set up camps wherever they want.
Q: So what is he proposing to do about it?
Michael Howard says he will review the Human Rights Act and has pledged to increase council powers, including a right to compulsorily buy land legally owned by Gypsies.
Q: What's behind this row?
This month has seen two significant developments. Firstly, the government has warned Brentwood council in Essex for not taking account of travellers in its local plans. Secondly, the Court of Appeal has referred a Leeds eviction case to the country's top judges in the House of Lords.
The judges said the Law Lords must decide whether the right to a home is more important than a council's right to evict. However, it's widely expected that until that judgement, many councils will suspend eviction proceedings - compounding local frustrations over unauthorised settlements.
Q: How do local people feel?
Many local residents believe it's a case of deliberate flouting of the law. Evictions can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Michael Howard says he wants local people to have more of a say in where sites are placed. Travellers' groups suggest a council's fear of voter backlash already leads to the high number of rejections, or the placing of caravans where no one else wants to live, such as next to motorways.
In the past year however there have been signs that some local dialogue is possible. One high profile case in Cambridgeshire has seen some local people working with travellers to resolve the dispute.
Q: So what role does the Human Rights Act play? Do travellers have more rights that others?
The act says everybody has the same rights which should not be unduly infringed by government or other public bodies. It does not confer more rights to one group over another. Its key feature is that officials should treat everyone equally by properly assessing their case.
Q: And how do these rights apply to travellers' settlements?
Travellers argue their right to a family life becomes an issue if councils don't fairly and equally assess their case for housing, taking into account the unique situation of their way of life.
Put at its simplest, if a council bans Gypsy caravans from a field because it's in an agricultural area, but it then allows a developer to put homes on the land, that would prompt a discrimination challenge.
But if a council proves that it has treated travellers equally and fairly, and given them adequate options or support to find a solution, then there would be no grounds for a challenge.
In most cases, the issue is far more complicated and the full answer to these thorny questions rests with the Law Lords.
So do Gypsies get their own way?
Research in the 1990s found Gypsies lose nine out of 10 planning applications and two out of three appeals. Donald Kenrick, who researches how the law treats travelling communities, says the situation has not improved and that in his experience many communities only get approval if they have moved on to a site before making an application - something which is legal.
He added that he had come across very few cases where human rights arguments had been considered valid by the courts. Planning inspectors generally rule them to be irrelevant, he says, because the Human Rights Act does not automatically trump other laws.
Q: So what's the government's position?
Deputy prime minister John Prescott has introduced new powers which seek to satisfy both groups. Firstly councils have gained stronger enforcement measures against illegal encampments. Secondly, the government has told councils they must assess traveller needs and identify suitable land in their local plans.
Q: But why are there so many unauthorized sites?
Simply because there are more Gypsies and travellers following a nomadic life than there are places for them to stop. For sixty years, the number of stopping places - such as open commons - has shrunk due to housing development and other changes in how we use land.
Today, experts advising the government think the UK is short of at least 3,500 stopping places.
Legislation which compelled councils to create travellers' sites was scrapped in 1994 - when Michael Howard was in government. But travellers say ministers broke a promise to ensure those who wanted to buy and develop their own sites would get support. Ministers argued that it was up to councils to take these decisions, not Whitehall.
But a large number of councils to this day have no policies on Gypsies and the Traveller Law Reform Coalition says the overwhelming number of applications get turned down.
This situation, the coalition argues, has forced travelling communities into a corner, increasingly the likelihood of illegal encampments.