Tuesday, 7 April 2015

What has changed for Gypsies and Travellers since 2010?

I am choosing the year 2010 because that is when my second book No Gypsies Served was published. I cannot here include all aspects of life, such as education, health and wellbeing, although they are interconnected, but will focus on two: 
  • finding a place to live
  • and public perception
My first impression is that nothing has radically changed since I began exploring the subject around 2006, but let us look a little deeper. For helping me keep up to date, I am indebted to the Travellers Times edited by Damien le Bas.
On the positive side, many Gypsies and Travellers have written their own memoirs and stories, which is fantastic; you only need to do a quick Amazon search to see them. This signifies a gain in confidence and a pride in identity for some. Also, well-organised campaigns are under way whereby Gypsies and Travellers can both attract support and fight their own corner; and recently some amazing site provision has occurred!
Finding a Place to Live
If Gypsies and Travellers have a place to call home, then life gets better all round. Children can go to school, they can register with a local GP, spend more time earning rather than for days to be eaten up in finding a place to live. Travellers may travel, but not all of the time.  However, the coalition government did not delay in making site provision even more difficult.  Quote from Lord Avebury: 
‘Ministers say that Travellers must obey planning laws like everyone else; but they demolished the system created by the previous Government under which an obligation was imposed on local authorities to provide planning permission for Travellers' sites that would accommodate the number of Travellers in each area, as determined by an independent assessment of needs, buttressed by public inquiries.’ 
Taken from Lords’ Hansard, 24 January 2012. See more.

Indeed the Secretary of State mentioned, Eric Pickles, was recently found guilty of unlawful discrimination. What example does this set for the rest of society?
It is understandable that there is still a tendency for Gypsies and Travellers to hide their ethnicity. I attended a Surrey Gypsy Traveller Community Forum (SGTCF) last week and a policeman from Thames Valley, who happens to be a Romany Gypsy, said that many members of the police force are of his heritage but keep it hidden. Each individual tends to think they are the only one. He also represents the Gypsy Roma Traveller Police Association, set up to lend support to such policeman and bring them together. The same concealment goes on in many other professions, such as teaching, in government bodies and the ambulance service. Encouragement is being given to be open, be proud, to break down stereotypes and ‘put their head above the parapet’; this phrase often used in the meeting. However, I digress – it is easily done.
Planning applications, even though completely lawful, continue to be refused. To make matters worse proposals were put forward to change the legal aid system, which prompted the Nomadlaws campaign. Take a look at some of the case studies showing the hardship that comes from a lack of vacant pitches and eviction. This demonstrates how the Legal Aid and Judicial Review reforms are depriving Gypsies and Travellers of access to justice. There are times when there is a desperate need to challenge unlawful decisions. 
When Lord Avebury spoke up against detrimental changes in the law in January 2012 in the House of Lords Debate on the Effect of Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders’ Bill on Gypsies and Travellers, he had the full support of the House. ‘There was not a single contrary voice in the whole debate,’ he said.

Remember the opening line of Gypsies Stop there (2008)? 'People threatened with eviction, due to no fault of their own, being unjustly hounded out. It's mediaeval the way they're treated, don't you think?' The young activist, Natalie, is testing out the affluent village newcomer, Kay.

Well, perhaps there is some recognition at last of the need for transit sites. Damien le Bas wrote in February’s Traveller Times:   'A special meeting at the House of Lords has heard how fresh approaches to temporary stopping by Travellers can reduce tensions and save considerable amounts of money, compared with the traditional cycle of evictions from place to place.' 

Meanwhile many councils around the UK impose what amounts to a blanket ban on all sites, regardless. The town here is Harlow in Essex, not far from Dale Farm site from which hundreds of Travellers were evicted. Hardly a surprise. Inadequate alternative provision was made for them, I seem to recall. On the other hand there was one shining example where a  local authority near Bath  perhaps tried too hard. Is this what Gypsies and Travellers want? My guess is such expenditure is likely to be criticized in the wider community, and this plan did not allow the families to build their own homes more cheaply and according to their cultural needs. However, it does look good!

A Solihull Housing Association seems to have got it right.

If you have any comments or first-hand stories relating to site provision in the past five years, I would love to hear from you. This can be an information gathering process.

Public Perception
Racism goes on, indeed is allowed to go on. Why?
Felicity Hannah writes: ‘Ten years ago, the former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, referred to anti-Traveller sentiment as the "last acceptable form of racism". Yet some politicians are still describing Gypsies and Travellers with language that would be political suicide if it was used against any other group.’ See Jake Bower’s comments here too. Son of a Romani man, and well-known journalist, he is now candidate for the Green Party. If more of the Traveller electorate voted for supportive candidates, then this would be a significant way forward for them to be heard and defend themselves.
Marc Willers QC, Human Rights Barrister, writes about Tackling hate speech aimed at Gypsies, Roma and Travellers’ He says ‘Politicians throughout Europe continue to use hate speech against Roma which in turn creates a climate in which racist violence is thought acceptable by offenders and, tragically, in recent years Roma have been the victims of violent racist attacks and murder.’
The Film Judgment in Hungary received 12 international awards, was screened in 25 countries, and appeared at 27 festivals.’ Judgement in Hungary: An Attack on Roma and a Search for Justice  by Eszter Hajdu: ‘In 2008 and 2009, Hungarian right-wing extremists committed a series of attacks on members of the Roma community. Six people were killed, including a five-year-old, and another five were injured. The trial of the four suspects lasted two and a half years; the verdict was passed in August 2013. Director Eszter Hajd├║ filmed the trial, which eventually became the documentary.’ 

Closer to home here in the UK, Damien le Bas writes in The Travellers Times about how some girls were refused entry to a bowling alley because of their 'nomadic' heritage. 
On a positive note, issues are being discussed more than before. I do not know the outcome of this meeting but they are held in Westminster quite regularly. Another meeting in London, held on 5 March, where the speakers, I am told, were excellent, addressed  ‘... the Social Exclusion of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities to Reduce Inequalities’. Ironically, there was a disappointing lack of attendees from the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community, although they are extremely welcome and help is provided to encourage them to be there. Is this due to a lack of awareness or that old reluctance to be open about their identity in mainstream society?  Hopefully more will go along and take part in the future.

The ruling set out in Eric Pickles proposals (Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2015) where Travellers must prove they are ‘nomadic’ to get planning concessions may seem logical on the face of it, but this is not something that can happen overnight simply to comply with a law. In practice this would divide families and communities, causing great hardship. Family is the backbone of the Travelling community.

Land for Development is Scarce
I am going to digress now a little into the availability and value of land. It is fair to say that in Britain almost all land is owned by someone, earmarked for a specific purpose be it agriculture, forestry, industry, residential, business, National Trust, the Crown, local authorities, golf courses and so on. National parks, green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty are protected from development and so-called ‘common land’, open for grazing for example, is a rarity. For the population in general, land is in extremely high demand and low supply.

We all know this. Any young person (say under the age of 40) trying to buy or even rent a home these days is hard pushed, even those in the well-qualified, higher-paid, professional bracket. I just mention this, to point out that Gypsies and Travellers are not the only ones with a problem, not the only adults having to share and double-up in cramped accommodation.I do not know if this will make anyone feel better or worse about the lack of provision, but I feel it is a point worth making.
It seems that in most areas, little has improved although, as we have seen, there are positive stories in places such as Solihull and Bath. The basic problem is that whilst the planning authorities had or have the remit to provide sites, the public always protest so they usually give up. Councillors and MPs inevitably listen to the wishes of the electorate or they will not win votes. If they are not in power, they are by definition pretty ‘powerless’. 

There is another way of looking at this, too as  Matthew Brindley of the Traveller Movement explains:

"We know that some politicians campaign on Gypsy and Traveller issues to garner votes. There are so many stereotypes about Gypsies and Travellers, and unfortunately a lot of similar coverage in the media; whether it's to do with crime, or public disorder, or rubbish dumping. Too often politicians play on these stereotypes and fears, and this is completely unacceptable in this day and age." 
The public protest against council-run or privately-owned sites in their locality because, rightly or wrongly, their perception is of a community that tends to make a mess. I say this only because it is what I hear from everyone I speak to. I am talking about public perception. Sometimes people refer to personal experience, or more often an impression gained from the media which is invariably from pictures of unauthorised encampments with no facilities. My experience of Gypsy sites is very different as I have seen tidy, orderly sites, each home a model of hygiene and cleanliness, part of their culture. I feel patronising even using such terms.
So the arguments, causes and effects, continue to swirl round in this perpetual cycle or circle. If those stopping in the unauthorised sites could make sure they clear up when they are suddenly moved on, difficult though this may be in reality, it would be a good starting point to halt this cycle. It must annoy other Gypsies and Travellers even more than it does non-Gypsies, for it tarnishes their reputation.

Note to the guilty parties (pass on if you can) : If in an unauthorised stopping place, you know it is temporary so can you put rubbish in bags as a daily routine, take those full bags to the nearest amenity tip? You have transport. Tell me, is there some reason why this is not possible? If the nature of your work – scrap metal, for example – means you have bits of fridges or whatever left over, then take the valuable stuff to your merchant, and dispose properly of the leftovers. Is this so difficult? I am sorry if I sound harsh and preachy, but ultimately such good practice could transform future relations with the general public, and therefore the chances of being accepted as close neighbours.

And, please, local councils, can more provision for rubbish disposal be made for people in this desperate situation? John Hockley QPM, Surrey County Council Traveller Site Manager, told me, ‘Increasingly, local authorities are being more proactive. For example, I visited a small unauthorised encampment in Hersham (Elmbridge) after the forum meeting last week. The Irish family present were clean and tidy and needed to be close to two hospitals where family members are undergoing serious long term treatments. Elmbridge council provided wheelie bins in the street they are parked in and as a result there is no mess whatsoever. The family actually want to be housed as they are fed up with being 'hounded on the road', but cannot get housing due mainly to rules that often disproportionately affect GRT applications.’
It is true that litter and fly-tipping is a problem everywhere. Look at motorway verges, shopping centres, back alleys, parks and other public places, Glastonbury, etc etc? Thoughtless people who drop litter in our local woods make me very angry indeed. So wouldn’t it be good if things could be turned around so people will say, ‘Do you know there were some Gypsies here for a while but you’d never know it; not a sign of anything. What care they take!’ Indeed that is exactly how it used to be when great pride in leaving nothing behind was part and parcel of the traditional way of life.
I want to end on a positive note.
A new way forward?
An interesting new approach is being tried in Surrey. I spoke to James Nicholls, a non-Gypsy who has socialised with Gypsies and Travellers all his life. He gave a talk on Checkatrade at the SGTCF meeting I attended. He has been a member of the Effingham Parish Council for 23 years and took on the planning role for the Effingham Residents and Ratepayers Association. He says, to the best of his knowledge, of roughly 2,000 general planning applications a year, about 60-70% were approved. Anyone from the Gypsy and Traveller community, however, was turned down and, over a period of 17 years, this amounted to a huge number of failed applications – apart from one! Gypsies and Travellers do not ask for more than other people; their requirements are different and modest, usually hard standing for a few trailers and permission to build an amenity shed.
James abhors this kind of resistance towards the Gypsy and Traveller community and is now trying to move things forward with a step-by-step plan that should keep everyone happy and, he hopes, provide decent accommodation and an answer to the planning problem. Keeping new pitches within the same area as existing legal sites, thus keeping families together, he recommends a softly-softly approach, adding no more than four or six pitches, taking one village at a time.
I guess each new set-up can prove itself and thus help gain approval from the local population. I wish James and all those involved the best of luck and hope that these families in need will be successful in their applications.


The Surrey GypsyTraveller Communities Forum (currently being 'rebuilt')
From the Information Pack – much about Gypsy and Traveller culture, history, lifestyle, values, education and problems. Also there are links to more organisations and websites you could visit.

Sweet, angry, poignant and humorous – dip into this Gypsy wife’s diary for something a bit different.  On Twitter  @rosatherose 

Last November, I looked back at my own posts on Gypsy and Traveller issues

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