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Richard Todd 05.12.22

Nottingham divided over law which would give police more powers over traveller camps

The presence of travelling communities can provoke strong feelings and fierce political debate in the often reluctant local communities that host them. As Ben Cooper reports, new legislation designed to make it harder for travellers to set up camp is only heightening this decades-old tension.

When a group of travellers caused “devastating” damage to a memorial garden for stillborn babies in August, the backlash from the public was instant, and intense.

Discovering the damage, the operations and fundraising manager for the charity that runs the £1 million Serenity Garden, Jo Sharp, said: “That’s fundraisers’ money, but more importantly it’s the emotion of what they stand for.

“Those sculptures with dead babies’ names and dates of birth on them.”

Just a week earlier a memorial tree in the same garden had been uprooted to make way for vehicles to park on the site.

To some the incidents in August were just the latest examples of a transient people living outside of the rules, and standards, of wider society. Vindication, they say, of the hard-line measures proposed in the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would give police powers to break up traveller camps and seize vehicles.

For others, defenders of the loosely-defined Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community, the Serenity Garden damage was an overblown, unrepresentative case of individual carelessness, the type that is only held against a whole, nebulous group of people out of ignorance, and racism.

For decades where travelling communities have gone, anger, and suspicion has followed them.

But is this, as many argue, simply through centuries-old ignorance and prejudice? Or are the people – and councils – who have to pick up the pieces simply expressing legitimate frustrations?

The most recent published census in the UK, taken in 2011, revealed a self-identifying Gypsy or Irish Traveller population of 58,000, accounting for 0.1% of the overall population.

In Nottinghamshire, data collected in 2018 by the County Council’s Gypsy, Traveller Liaison Officer (GTLO) estimated some 3,000 people from the various Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities were living in the county – though the council admitted that accurate figures are hard to establish.

Of the overall UK Gypsy, Traveller and Roma population recorded in 2011 the majority were in permanent housing – only 24% were living in mobile homes or caravans.

For those who are mobile, according to the latest national Traveller Caravan Count – a survey recording caravan numbers and sites across the UK – there were a total of 356 registered pitches around the country, run either by councils or private owners.

Of the 22,946 caravans registered in the UK in January 2020, the count revealed, 88% were being kept on authorised land, and only 12% were pitched up on unauthorised spaces, meaning land without proper planning permission.

But being on unauthorised land does not mean being unwanted – only 7% of caravans, 1,547 out of 22,946, were deemed to be on land where they were ‘not tolerated’.

As things stand members of the various Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities – a term that many argue overlooks important nuances within those groups – are afforded rights both as travellers, and as members of their respective ethnic groups.

The wording of relevant guidance over planning policy for traveller sites states the aim of ensuring “fair and equal treatment for travellers, in a way that facilitates the traditional and nomadic way of life of travellers while respecting the interests of the settled community”.

Under these rules, councils are required to provide both spaces for travellers to live in, either permanently or in ‘transit’ sites, and rights to ensure that they are protected in those spaces.

A more contentious point is over access to benefits and other local authority services – the crux being over how much a traveller community can demonstrate it has a meaningful, existing connection with that area.

Because despite the rights enshrined in law, accessing schools and local medical facilities can be prohibitively difficult for traveller communities.

The issue itself often inflames local populations, especially in poorer areas where services are already strained. Traveller communities argue they are simply asking for their rights under these laws.

Dr Martin Myers, Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham, has spent years researching and writing about the ways in which Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities have been treated – he says mistreated – in Britain.

He is also a member of the steering committee of The Traveller Movement, which campaigns and lobbies Parliament over rights for travellers.

Dr Myers says when communities arrive unauthorised in a town or city, the chances are they are only stopping temporarily out of urgent need, which councils should do more to address.

He says: “Over the years there’s been a historic reluctance on the part of most local authorities to provide gypsy and traveller sites.

“They’ve tended to be given permission for land that’s clearly not fit for purpose – underneath flyovers, adjacent to sewage plants.

“That tends to reflect local politics. Politicians very much buy into these local arguments about what terrible people gypsies and travellers are. There’s an assumption that they should be pushed out of the places where all the nice people live.”

In order to put down permanent roots, travellers must first apply for planning permission, including where they own the land. Whether they get permission depends on the local council’s planning committee.

Which explains an interesting, apparent paradox in the figures from the Traveller Caravan Count: that of the 2,743 registered caravans deemed in January 2020 to be on unauthorised sites, 2,049 were in fact resident on their own land at the time.

So the majority of members of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community reside in permanent bricks-and-mortar homes. And, these figures bear out, most of those living in mobile homes doing so on authorised sites, a point which Dr Myers says is often totally overlooked.

He says: “People think that [most interaction they have with Gypsies and Travellers] is when something happens, when travellers appear from nowhere, and there’s a local reaction from that.

“I don’t think that’s true. The biggest interactions are in their daily lives. They’re not even conscious that they are interacting with Gypsies Travellers. The majority of Gypsy and Traveller communities live in bricks and mortar. There are very few mobile traveller communities.”

Yet it is this small section of the community that most people recognise as representative of the overall – and which draw the most high-profile controversy.

David Lloyd, leader of Conservative-run Newark and Sherwood District, has become an outspoken advocate of placing limits on temporary travellers within the authority.

After a string of unauthorised arrivals over the summer, Councillor Lloyd and others decided to go public over the struggles the council has had, with the pointed message that “I want to make Newark and Sherwood a no-go area for such unauthorised encampments”.

But, he maintains, this is not motivated by prejudice or racism.

Speaking to Nottinghamshire Live, Councillor Lloyd said it is only the temporary travellers passing through Newark who are being targeted – not the long-established Gypsy and Traveller community that lives there permanently.

He said: “I want cohesion. We’re not saying no travellers at all. What I’m seeking to do is to make amenity space resilient.

“We have travellers coming through, parking up on areas that kids play on, or residential areas. That’s not on. It’s council tax payers that should be able to enjoy them.

“We have the evidence. We’ve spent the best part of four hours cleaning up poo and stuff, having provided bags. There is behaviour that antagonises communities to potentially become racist. That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”

Another Nottinghamshire politician has gone even further than that – choosing to take direct, and unmistakably blunt action.

Ashfield MP Lee Anderson made national headlines when he took matters into his own hands, hiring a forklift truck and personally placing a large boulder at the entrance of a park in Selston last August, to prevent travellers from getting on to the field.

He is equally bullish today about the problems – and the solution.

Speaking to Nottinghamshire Live, Anderson said: “Whenever travelling communities have visited Ashfield, which until recently was on a regular basis, crime has gone through the roof, antisocial behaviour has gone through the roof, and thieving has gone through the roof.

“If people turn up to a particular area, smash their way into a car park, litter the whole area, go out stealing, robbing and threatening the community then of course locals are going to be upset.

“I welcome the new Police and Crime Bill, which gives our courts, police and local authorities extra powers to disperse illegal camps.”

This contentious piece of legislation is likely to go down as a major moment in the centuries-long history of traveller communities in Britain.

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Dr Myers has his own views on the substance and the motivations for the new law, which he says is driven by attitudes and presumptions “burdened by racist tropes”.

He says: “It’s ill-informed public opinion based on racist stereotypes and massive misunderstandings of how people live their lives.

“The racist assumptions have no bearing on the reality of the lived experience. They’re burdened by racist tropes.

“Attitudes have materialised over a very long space of time. That feeds into national politics. [The bill] is an outrageous attempt to clamp down on homeless Gypsy and Traveller families.”

Others vehemently disagree.

But what’s certain is that if the Police and Crime Bill does get passed, as looks likely, it will signify a marked hardening of attitudes towards travellers.

The rights or wrongs of going in this direction remain for the arena of a heated and often angry political debate which shows no signs of cooling any time soon.