Sites: House of Lords hears of better way forward

5 February 2015

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.

The seminar, organised by the Traveller Movement, heard how the once-neglected Kidacre Street site in Leeds has been renovated to provide new temporary pitches, and how this had had a dramatic effect on the amount of money the City Council was spending on moving Travellers on.

Rob McCartney of Leeds City Council told how the site had been derelict since 1985. It had been disused for so long that the sign outside still referred to West Yorkshire Council, which was disbanded more than 28 years ago.

However, since the site has been refurbished, the city has experienced a 17-fold reduction in the number of evictions that have taken place. Even taking into account the money spent on refurbishing the Kidacre Street site, this has meant a 50% reduction in costs for the council.

"This site has demonstrated that the Gypsies and Travellers are committed to making site options work," he said.

Speaking alongside Mr McCartney, Helen Jones of Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange said that councils should require actual "evidence of the harmful effect of Traveller sites", rather than just opinion.

It was also crucial to listen to the concerns of settled people and businesses who may have had bad experiences with unauthorised sites, but likewise to be clear about the possible advantages for local business, such as increased trade.

Also at the meeting, the government's plans to change the definition of who is a Gypsy or Traveller were decried by Lord Avebury and Josie O'Driscoll of the Traveller Movement advisory group.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles- who was recently chastised in the High Court for his anti-Traveller policies- and his department have discussed restricting the legal definition of "Gypsy" to mean only someone who is permanently travelling. The move has been decried by the Traveller Movement as "counterproductive, Kafkaesque and likely to increase unauthorised encampments."

Josie O'Driscoll said that if the proposed change in definition goes ahead, it will lead to more Travellers taking to the road in reaction. Lord Avebury said "if [Mr] Pickles does go down that route, he will be violating several international conventions to which the UK is a party."

Siobhan Spencer of the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups also expressed serious concern about the government's plans to redefine "Gypsy", which were unveiled by Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, last year.

Ruth Barnett, who was rescued from the Nazis by a Kindertransport to Britain before the outbreak of World War II because of her Jewish heritage, said part of the problem is that children are not educated about the realities of Gypsy and Traveller ethnicity and the persecution these peoples have faced.  

"It is absolutely outrageous that these people should be defined from above without consultation," she said.

Trudy Aspinwall of the charity Save the Children spoke about the differences between England and Wales, where the Welsh Assembly have reintroduced the duty of local authorities to provide site for Travellers, and incoporated a wide definition of Gypsies and Travellers into Welsh law.

Aspinwall told how only one new site had been built in Wales since 1997, but that this looked set to change now the Welsh Government has firmed up its commitment to Gypsies and Travellers as part of the diverse heritage of Wales.

Mike Doherty of the Traveller Movement asked the Welsh Equalities and Human Rights Commission what could be done about public servants including councillors and mayors from getting involved in anti-Traveller campaigns, which contradicts their public sector qualities duty. A representative of the Welsh EHRC agreed to look into the matter.

Also at the meeting, Lord Avebury confirmed he had suggested that the government's new solution to the housing crisis in South East England could include 1% of all new "garden city" homes being pitches for Gypsies and Travellers. Michael Cassidy, chairman-designate of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation- which plans to build a new garden city in the Swanscombe and Northfleet area of north Kent- said he had would "look into it".