Destruction of a way of life

5 October 2011
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Extermination of a People through destruction of a way of life

In the current tensions surrounding the Dale Farm story, I have explored the UK State's laws and policies that have led us to the point where the State is making people people homeless by evicting them from their own land. I regret to have discovered a history of law and policy intent on the destruction of the Gypsy and Traveller way of life.

The housing crisis of Travellers and Gypsies

Whilst travelling and caravan living are by no means necessary indicators of cultural group membership, for some Travellers and Gypsies, they are crucial aspects of a way of life. Travelling and caravan living can fulfil a number of social functions, form part of identity and make for adaptability and flexibility as well as social cohesion; “For some, nomadism is a way of life; for others it is a state of mind” (BIHR, 2005).

One Square Mile

Whilst there are an estimated 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in Britain today (Matthews, 2008:2), a recent report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that the entire population’s nomadic accommodation needs would be met if just one square mile of Britain’s 93,000 square miles was permitted to be used as authorised camp sites (2010:9).

Dangerous places

The majority of caravan homes are on authorised sites. However, over half of these sites are currently in locations that are not suitable for residential living with 26% directly adjacent to motorways, 13%  next to aircraft runways, 12% next to rubbish tips and 4% next to sewage farms (BIHR, 2005). Those Gypsies and Travellers with no authorised place on which to pitch their caravan homes are forced to camp illegally either on their own land without the requisite planning permission or on the land of others. Often such unauthorised sites lack basic facilities and can be situated in highly dangerous places. The position of having no authorised place to live often entails a vicious cycle of eviction, expulsion from a Local Authority’s area, reluctant travel to a new unauthorised site followed by further eviction etc.

This way of life, on the fringes of legality and of society leads to much disruption in terms of being able to successfully maintain regular employment (meaning poverty rates are high) as well as in terms of accessing essential services such as education and health care (meaning that the health status of Gypsies and Travellers is much poorer than that of the general population, for example, the life expectancy of Traveller men is 10 years less than the national average) (Cemlyn et al., 2009:49) .

The origins and perpetuation of the crisis

The origins of this shameful shortage of “authorised” homes, leading to such social inequality, are the UK State’s own restrictive laws and policies that over a course of 500 years, have effectively removed communal land rights and choice over land use from its citizens. These law and policies have had a disproportionally discriminatory effect on Gypsies and Travellers who see travelling and caravan living at the heart of their cultural life.

Early State laws against Gypsies and Travellers were overtly genocidal in nature. For example, in 1554 the State enacted a law stating that Gypsies were to be liable for punishment by the death penalty (Mayall, 1995:24).

The end of the “Atchin Tans”

Subsequent laws, although less violent in nature, were equally intent on destruction of the Gypsy and Traveller way of life. In 1810, George III enacted the “Hawkers and Pedlars Act” which was closely followed, in 1822, by the “Vagrancy Act” and the “Turnpike Road Act” (Hawes & Perez, 1996:16). These Acts required Gypsies to be licensed as such and consolidated the definition of Gypsies and Travellers as vagrants as well as providing that any Gypsies found camping on the side of the road should be liable to a fine. In 1824 George IV enacted an even stronger Vagrancy Act which was aimed more specifically at Gypsies and their cultural practices including their forms of earning money and living.  Forceful evictions of traditional communal stopping places such as Corke’s Meadow, Belvedere, Erith Marshes and Darenth Woods continued into the post WWII era and in a few short years  had been cleared for redevelopment despite holding significant cultural meaning as “atchin tans”[1] to the Gypsies and Travellers they had serviced for generations.

Kicked while they’re down

Having been banned from roadsides and evicted from commons and traditional stopping places as well as being prosecuted simply for sleeping outside, the places Gypsies and Travellers could continue their cultural way of life were severely limited yet the State continued to find ways to further restrict them. In 1906 the Middlesex County Council Bill (clause 31) imposed the first penalties on landowners who permitted the use or occupation of their land by Gypsies and Travellers (Mayall, 1995:68). The 1960 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act was designed to regulate and control privately owned caravan sites and provided that no occupier of land could use it as a caravan site without a site licence and that a site licence could not be obtained unless planning permission had been granted for the use of the land for such a purpose, thus leading to a further decrease in availability of sites (Willers, 2010). Significant advancements in planning laws further restricted and criminalised Gypsy and Traveller activity. The 1990 Town and Country Planning Act held, with limited exceptions, that the stationing of a caravan on land required planning permission, non-compliance with which was made a criminal offence. The 1991 Planning and Compensation Act further strengthened local government enforcement powers against breaches of planning control.  Yet when Gypsies and Travellers do apply for permission to use their own land for caravan dwelling, 90% of applications are refused with a marginally better result on appeals (which can be long, bureaucratic and expensive) (Hawes&Perez, 1996:53). As Home points out, planning law seeks to define the right to use land according to traditional sedentary concepts, but the Gypsy way of life does not easily fit into these concepts; Occasional, seasonal and intermittent use, a variable mixture of residential, work and storage usage, are all part of the travelling culture (1984 in Hawes&Peres, 1996:37). Thus the rigidity of the planning laws creates a situation which is inherently discriminatory as they presume a sedentary norm which “militates against different styles of existence” (Home in Hawes&Perez, 1996:37).

In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, still in place today, was enacted. Specifically, the 1994 Act extended the power of local authorities to direct unauthorised campers to leave their area and failure to comply with such a direction became a criminal offence. The 1994 Act criminalised all Gypsies and Travellers without access to authorised pitches

The new coalition Government has abolished regional planning bodies which were to oversee maintenance and provision of registered sites. Finally, the new communities and local government minister, Eric Pickles, has announced his intention to change planning laws to stop applications for retrospective permission to allow caravans on private land in a move which will certainly reduce the chances of a “level playing field” for Gypsy and Traveller planning applications even further (Hill, 2010).

The final solution?

The minority of Gypsy and Traveller caravan homes are on unauthorised sites due either to a deficiency in Local Authority provision or an inability to obtain planning permission for caravan use on their privately owned land.  Taken individually the laws, policies and practices still invoked against Gypsies and Traveller today may not seem so overtly genocidal at first glance as those of the distant past, but an in-depth investigation of how they work together reveals that the space, both physical and metaphysical, in which Gypsies are able to exist in accordance with their cultural identity is stifling small.

The final solution to the Gypsy and Traveller housing crisis cannot be to continue this 500-year-old cultural genocide. It must be to protect travelling and caravan living as a way of life.

You can contact Rose Firth via email at



International Conventions and British Statutes 

 Anti Social Behaviour Act 1998

 Caravan Sites Act 1968

 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960

 Commons Act 1876

 Commons Enclosure Act 1899

 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The  Genocide Convention). Adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General  Assembly on 9 December 1948. Entry into force: 12 January 1951.

 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

 European Convention on Human Right 1950

 Public Health Act 1892 and 1936

 Homelessness Act 2002

 Housing of Working Classes Act 1885

 Human Rights Act 1998

 Justices Commitment Act 1743

 Local Government Act 1894

 Planning and Compensation Act 1992

 Race Relations Act 1976 (and Amendments 2000)

 Vagrancy Act 1822 and 1824

Case Law

 Buckley v The United Kingdom (Application No: 20348/92

 CRE v Dutton [1989] 1 All ER 304

 Mabo v Queensland II (1992) 175 CLR 1

 Mills v Cooper [1967] 2 QB 459

 R v Lincolnshire County Council, Ex p Atkinson (1995) 8 Admin LR 529


 Reports, Briefing Papers and Circulars

Matthews, Z. (2008) The health of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK, A Race Equality Foundation Briefing paper. Better Health Briefing 12. Nov 2008 [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 30 August 2010]

 Brown, P. & Niner, P. (2009) Assessing local housing authorities’ progress in meeting the accommodation needs of Gypsy and Traveller communities in England. Available at:'progressinmeetingtheaccommodationneedsofgypsyandtravellercommunities [Accessed 30 August 2010]

Cemlyn S., Greenfields M., Matthews Z., et al. (2009) Inequalities Experienced by Gypsy and Traveller Communities: A Review (University of Bristol/Buckinghamshire New University/Equality and Human Rights Commission) available at: [Accessed 30 August 2010]

Circular 28/77 (Gypsy Caravan Sites) London: Dept of Environment.

Circular 57/78 (Accommodation for Gypsies) London: Dept of Environment.

Circular 18/94 (Planning and Gypsies) London: Dept of Environment.

Circular 01/06 ('Planning for Gypsy and Traveller Caravan) London: Dept of Environment.

Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). (2006) Common Ground: Equality, Good Race Relations and Sites for Gypsies and Irish Travellers (London: CRE)

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Clark, C. and Greenfields, M. (2006) Here to stay: The Gypsies and Travellers or Britain (Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press)

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Palmer, A. (2000) Colonial Genocide (Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing)

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Online Materials

Bourdon, A.D. (2004) The British Colonization of Australia, in Relation to Genocide. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2010].

Bowers, J. (2010) First cut is the deepest [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2010]

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Hill, A. (2010) Gypsies prepare to fight government housing policy. Guardian Online, 8 June [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2010]

Lee, R. (2004) What is Roma Rights? [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2010]

Mcveigh, T. & Morrison, O. 2010 (2010) New wave of evictions threatens Gypsies [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2010]

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General Websites (Leeds GATE- Gypsy, Roma, Traveller Organisation) (Friends, Families and Travellers) (Irish Traveller Movement in Britain) (Roma Support Group)

[1] (stopping place (Clark&Greenfields, 2006:360))