I’ve been thinking again about the Gypsy/Traveller issue recently, as I have a feature due to be published soon on this homeless Romany family. As it happens I was speaking to someone yesterday who works in this field and we discussed the problem of homelessness.
No one knows the exact scale of the problem but Gypsies and Travellers with no legal place to park their trailers are classed as statutory homeless. And since Maggie Thatcher’s 1994 Criminal Justice Act essentially outlawed their way of life, a shortage of council and private sites has forced many even further onto society’s margins than they were before. Without a permanent address it can be difficult to get a child enrolled at school, to find a doctor or get a job. The Act removed an earlier requirement for local authorities to provide stopping places. Some councils went as far as closing existing sites. The resulting explosion in unauthorised camps, where trailers pull up on school fields and business parks – only to be threatened with expensive court action – has led to tension with settled communities.
For all its faults, the Labour government has made some attempts to deal with this. Under the Housing Act 2004 and later government guidance, local authorities were required to assess and respond to the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their areas – to ensure they have decent, appropriate accommodation like other members of society. The first time English authorities did their counts in 2006 they found 6,000 additional pitches were needed to deal with the level of homelessness as it was then. At the current rate of action, I’m told it would take a staggering 19 years to get anywhere close to providing that number of caravan slabs – let alone the inevitable increase in need since the last survey.
Some councils have been more proactive than others and most are very behind. But for those who are moving on it, funding can be sourced from the government’s Innovation fund to get on with building. Allerdale in Cumbria is one area that is making strides – it hopes to build small family-sized plots using sweat equity from the residents and handing over management to members of the travelling community. Nevertheless the situation is far from promising – this issue is a difficult sell for politicians, not helped by the hysterical stereotyping of Gypsies and Travellers by local papers and the tabloid media.
The situation looks even more grim as the election approaches. Last month, the Tories unveiled their pledge to target Gypsies and Travellers through the creation of a new crime – “intentional trespass.” Trespass is currently a civil offence, meaning that local authorities or landowners who want to deal with it must serve an eviction notice through the courts – an often slow and expensive process. The Conserative proposals would mean that “illegal” encampments could result in immediate arrests, criminal charges and everything else that this brings. They also vow to overturn the Human Rights Act – which they believe is being abused by minorities like travelling people – to make it harder for Gypsies and Travellers to get planning permission and to scrap the compulsion on councils to address the lack of sites.
It’ll never work, because it misses the central point that most unauthorised encampments only exist because there are not enough legal stopping places, thanks of course to an equally enlightened Tory policy. As the LGIU think tank puts it: “Forcible removal of people from sites does not solve the problem of their accommodation or welfare. It is most probable that these proposals will cost local authorities more money and simply promote conflict and force movement with little chance of making a positive difference. Some people need to have a group to blame and these policy proposals will feed their prejudices.”
A man calling himself “Gypsy” on the Tory blog site adds: “We are not allowed to travel and were not allowed to settle,is there no place for romany gypsies in human society give us a chance there is good and bad among all ,dont use gypsy travelers for extra votes….” [sic]