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Are Gypsies the problem?

When a ‘land for sale by auction’ notice appeared at the end of a cul-de-sac in Billericay, Essex, the reaction was swift and well organised. A letter expressing concern that the land might be bought and occupied by members of the travelling community with a detrimental effect on the value of their properties was immediately prepared by two residents and delivered to 180 houses in the vicinity. Within days a meeting was held and a limited company set up with some 45 neighbours contributing to the eventual purchase price of £75,000. The land purchased is part of a ‘field’, thickly overgrown mainly with hawthorns, most of which is owned by a property company in the anticipation that its green-belt status will some time be changed.

Whether or not the fears of residents in this instance were well founded, the near impossibility of finding legal stopping places means that Gypsies and Travellers have been forced into confrontational situations with local authorities and with members of the settled community in the areas where they are encamped.

It is estimated that in England there are between 4,000 and 5,000 vans and from 16,000 to 20,000 Travellers and Gypsies either in transit or without a legal place to stay (Environmental Health Journal, April 2005, online). The shortage of sites means that Travellers are forced to move on, to the detriment of their health and their children’s education. It also means that many more than were intended are stopping on legal sites. This for example is the situation at Crays Hill in Basildon, also in Essex, where there are some 30 legal plots on a site but more than sixty are occupied illegally. Similar situations can be found in various parts of the country.

The plight of Gypsies and Travellers is not a popular cause. In 1973 Jeremy Sandford wrote in his book Gypsies of the situation for Gypsies who had always been vulnerable to attack from those who “perhaps from envy of their free and easy ways” want to drive them from “our hedgerows, commons and public places” but were now faced with legislation which effectively outlawed their way of life. He also stated in his conclusion that at the present rate of progress “it may well be into the 2000s’ before there was a place on a site for every British gypsy”. However far from there being progress the situation has become much worse.

The 1960 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act had “forced families to move off agricultural land onto lay-bys and car parks.” A government survey revealed the extent of traveller poverty: more than two thirds were living on sites without access to running water or rubbish disposal (Helen O’Nions, The Marginalisation of Gypsies, 1995). The 1968 Caravan Sites Act had the prime purpose of remedying this situation. Local Authorities were mandated to provide “adequate accommodation for Gypsies residing in or resorting to their area”. However, the sites that were provided by councils were not necessarily to the liking of Gypsies in that they made insufficient allowance for their lifestyle. For example the collecting of scrap metal and keeping of animals could be forbidden, and there would not be room for the gathering together of extended family groups. Councils had additional powers to remove Gypsies not on designated sites. The Act did not work as intended, not least because councils found ways around the duty to provide sites. By the time the Conservative government removed the statutory obligations in 1994 one third of Travellers had no legal place to stay. During the Thatcher era thousands of traditional stopping places disappeared.

In what is seen as an attempt to make Gypsies abandon the nomadic way of life the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 ended the duty for local authorities to provide sites and removed government funding for them. It also became a criminal offence for caravans to stop on the highway, unoccupied land, common land or land without consent. Gypsies were encouraged to buy land and develop their own sites, but because of the restrictive criteria set by councils some 80 per cent of these applications are turned down. This is why some have resorted to buying and moving on to land before seeking planning permission. The position whereby green-belt land could be considered for Gypsy sites (“a recognition of the difficulty of finding suitable sites in suburbia”) was ended on the grounds that “Gypsies enjoy a privileged position in the planning system”. Ironically councils were given encouragement to allow building and development on green-belt sites.

The Labour government has resumed the funding of sites and has increased the amount it intends to spend on them. However it has not put the responsibilities of councils back to the pre-1994 position. The Housing Act 2004 placed a duty on local authorities to include Gypsies and Travellers in their local housing assessments and “demonstrate how these needs will be met”, with the Secretary of State having powers to direct a local authority to produce a plan. Brentwood is the first council to be challenged in this way. If the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is successful in getting Brentwood to comply it will encourage other councils “to get on with the job”. Many councils do not need encouragement; the Environmental Health Journal cites the example of Norfolk, whose Traveller Liaison Group has already produced a Traveller protocol and has five authorised sites and is planning a transit site.

Basildon council has 106 authorised sites but still does not have enough places for all of the Travellers who wish to stop in the district. Wakefield claims to have one of the largest authorised Traveller sites in the country and is the first council to announce plans to apply Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to particular illegal encampments. These require a lower standard of proof than normal court proceedings but the Gypsy Council is advising Gypsies to challenge the orders through the courts.

In some instances local people protesting about illegal traveller sites are also sympathetic to the plight of Gypsies and Travellers; for example, the Cottenham Residents’ Association and the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition forwarded a joint statement to the Government pointing out that the provision of adequate sites by all local authorities would address the acute shortage of sites and also bring an end to illegal and unauthorised encampments.

Whilst emphasis is put on the problems caused by illegal sites and the excess numbers who are stopping on authorised sites, the widespread perception is of Gypsies and Travellers as people who live outside of the constraints which the settled community are bound by, who do not contribute in work or taxes but commit crime, spoil the environment with their rubbish and generally cause trouble by their very presence in an area.

Gypsies and Travellers are much like other people; most of them do work, though not necessarily in full-time wage labour, and they do pay taxes. A study for the Rowntree Foundation among New Age travellers found that nearly half of those surveyed were in work and many more had worked at some time during the year. Most of the accusations regarding criminal behaviour are unsubstantiated but as in the rest of society some commit crimes. Ironically many thousands of Gorjios (non-Gypsies) choose to take caravan and camping holidays, and cook meals in their gardens; some dump their old sofas and other rubbish in country lanes.

Gypsies have maintained their identity through many centuries of prejudice and discrimination. They may choose to call themselves Travellers but not all Travellers are Gypsies and not all Gypsies are of a single group. Changes in their lifestyle have inevitably been made. The most obvious being the disappearance of horse-drawn caravans which had earlier replaced bender tents. We have shown some of the things which have made the itinerant life more difficult over recent years including legal restrictions, the disappearance of traditional stopping sites (some after hundreds of years in use), constantly being moved on. Other factors are the reduction in casual farm work, and restrictions imposed on scrap metal dealing.

I live in that cul-de-sac in Billericay but as a Socialist did not take part in the anti-Traveller action of the others. That would be to target a group of fellow workers for problems caused by capitalism. Could the reasonable enough demands of the Travellers be met within capitalism? Possibly. It may be that local authorities will be persuaded to fulfil their obligations but, since they are faced with competing demands on their finances, probably at the expense of other local services. But what will never be able to be ended under capitalism is the competition between workers for jobs, housing and amenities arising out of the artificial scarcity that is built-in to it and which gives rise to and sustains divisive prejudices amongst those who are not socialists. It was precisely because there are so many problems which cannot be solved within the capitalist system that I became a Socialist.

PAT DEUTZ