‘We have just registered as homeless - with the same council that is about to evict us’
Romany Gypsy family set to become homeless early in the new year after coming to the end of the road in a gruelling five-year planning battle with Staffordshire Moorlands District Council
What passed as normal life came to a shuddering halt for William Ward and his wife Donna on a cold wintry afternoon on the 6th February earlier this year, when they heard that their appeal to the government planning inspectors to allow them to keep their home on their own land had failed.
The appeal decision notice from the Planning Inspectorate gave the Wards and their two children 12 months’ notice to remove their home, vehicles, infrastructure (like paths and paving) and any storage that was not solely to do with agricultural use. Failure to do so could incur criminal proceedings.
William Ward, who was breeding pedigree pigs and keeping chickens on his land, says that the stresses and costs of the planning battle, and a separate legal battle with neighbours over a right of way, had smashed their lives to pieces and destroyed his business. “The expense of being stuck in limbo while going through the planning process, and a separate legal battle with our neighbours over the use of a track, all running at the same time, has devastated us financially and emotionally,” he told the Travellers’ Times.
“I had to sell everything I used to make money,” added William Ward - whose family and friends know him as Billy. “We lost all of my tow vehicles and trailers, we were left with significant debt with banks, family and friends, and all the while – like everyone else – going through the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.”
William Ward is now in touch with Community Law Partnership – the Traveller planning experts – but doesn’t hold out much hope about being able to save his family’s home – what with the clock ticking down to eviction day on February 6th 2024, which is less than two months away. The family have entered a sort of a “limbo”, which is beyond hope. This morning the family registered as homeless with Staffordshire Moorlands District Council – the very same council that is evicting them and making them homeless.
It had all seemed so hopeful when William Ward purchased the small piece of agricultural land six years ago. It seemed exactly what he needed for his growing family and his business plans. The land already came with some buildings and a caravan on it, says William Ward, and the plan was to build a successful business buying, breeding and selling pedigree pigs, while still travelling to pick up the odd farm work down in Kent. That plan didn’t last long, when it turned out that the caravan and all the structures except for a barn were there without planning permission, and the family were soon served with a planning enforcement notice from Staffordshire and Moorlands District Council accusing them of unlawful development.
William Ward duly contracted a planning advisor and put in a retrospective planning application in 2018 - and the battle with the council began.
There seemed to still be hope in the ensuing planning battle; right up until the appeal decision in February 2023. There are exceptions that allow residential buildings - such as the Wards trailer and then mobile home - to be sited or built on agricultural land for key agricultural workers, plus Staffordshire Moorlands District Council had a duty to try to find six extra pitches for Gypsies and Travellers before 2019, and the the rights of the Ward’s children were also a key point in the planning application; the Ward's oldest girl Bella was doing well in the local primary school and the youngest girl was special needs and had a dedicated health carer supporting her. But in the end none of that mattered and the planning inspector deemed that the land was too “isolated” for the agricultural key worker exception, and besides, although there where already other mobile homes on other pieces of land in the vicinity (that had presumably either been passed for planning or where there also without planning permission – but just not enforced on) there weren’t enough of them to allow him to pass William Ward’s mobile home.
In effect, the Government Planning Inspector decided that the right for people to enjoy a view across an already developed tranche of agricultural land had trumped the Ward’s right to a home and the welfare of their children.
“We're not animals,” says William Ward, “though sometimes it seems that we're treated worse than animals. They are using law, policy, and intellect as weapons to beat us into submission because we are vulnerable,” he adds. When William Ward says "they" he means The government and their planning policies, the council and the way it seems to be OK with some planning infringements - but not others, and the local residents who opposed his planning application.
“We have feelings, emotions, and attachments. We have children that we need the best for, like a safe secure home on our own property with access to education and health care services,” added William Ward.
“The council are failing to provide this so I tried to do it myself as a responsible parent. Most people can choose the way they live but us Gypsies and Travellers can't choose our culture, the culture we have been born in to. It’s all I know, I don't know any different, and now I'm being made into a criminal on the wrong side of the law and it’s not like I'm deliberately breaking the law I've been left with no other option.
I only ask to be treated reasonably and perhaps with a little compassion the same as anyone else, it's the human touch. I can't comply with an enforcement that is not physically possible, not economically viable forcing my babies further into poverty.”
The Travellers’ Times approached Staffordshire Moorlands District Council for comment.
We asked them, why did it make sense to evict a family and make them homeless, when all that would mean is that they would then have a duty to re-home them? Why not save taxpayers money and leave the Wards where they were? We also asked them that as they currently have an official recorded need for three more Gypsy/Traveller pitches, so if they evict the Wards will that then mean that they will update their 2015 Gypsy/Traveller accommodation needs assessment and increase that need to four?
Staffordshire Moorlands District Council - a public body funded by the tax-payer, which should be accountable and which employs staff whose job it is to respond to press requests - did not reply.
So as the clock ticks down, the Wards have no other choice but to keep on keeping on - even though it seems like there is no hope of saving their home. In the meantime, the family have registered as homeless, Bella will continue to go to school and making decorations - probably this time for Christmas, William will keep desperately contacting planning experts, and the family will also be getting as ready as they can to comply with the enforcement notice and move out, lock, stock and barrel, into the unknown. That’s a hell of a burden to face over Christmas, as every day – including Christmas Day – is another day closer to their eviction.
William Ward is keen to add this message thanking a local business man who he said has provided a lot of support to the family over the years:
"Out of all the people I have had the pleasure of working with, that Hartley Slann has been a real gentleman unwavering in his support, without discrimination, prejudice or even the slightest hint of malice. If others could learn from his example the world would be a better place for everyone. It’s only fair that when you do come across one of the few decent people out there in the world that they get a little recognition for this"
Mike Doherty/TT News
(Lead photo: William Ward holding his youngest daughter, Bella Ward, his eldest daughter, is standing, photo courtesy of the William Ward family)