Back to the future with 'gypsy status'?
The controversial planning definition ‘gypsy status’ - which Travellers need to meet to develop Traveller sites - has finally been changed by the Government – over a year after Court of Appeal judges branded parts of it “discriminatory”.
Romany Gypsies and Travellers who want to access the government’s planning policy for Travellers must prove to councils and planning inspectors that they have ‘gypsy status’ to develop and live on their own sites on land that they own. They do this by proving that they 'have a nomadic habit of life', which basically means that they continue to travel for work purposes and/or go to horse fairs, despite now living on a settled permanent site.
Councils also use 'gypsy status' to determine the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their area.
The current ‘gypsy status’ has now reverted back to a previous 2012 version and can now apply to Travellers who have stopped travelling permanently because of illness or old age, after judges said that the previous ‘gypsy status’ – brought in by the Conservative Government in 2015 - discriminated against elderly and disabled Gypsies and Travellers.
When the ‘gypsy status' planning definition was changed in 2015 it sparked protests and demonstrations by Gypsies and Travellers who correctly predicted that the change would eventually be challenged in the High Courts.
Lisa Smith, a disabled Traveller, supported by lawyers and Gypsy/Traveller charities, successfully challenged the 2015 version of ‘gypsy status’ in the Court of Appeal in 2022, after a series of legal battles stretching back over a number of years. On December 19th last year - over a year after Lisa Smith's victory - the Government finally amended the policy to fit in with the Appeal Court judgement.
Gypsy and Traveller campaigners who were involved in the Lisa Smith court cases welcomed the news.
“We welcome the Government reverting to a more inclusive 2012 planning policy definition of ‘Traveller’ – protected characteristics are protected for a reason, and the 2015 definition should have never been adopted in the first place,” said a spokesperson for Friends, Families and Travellers.
“As interveners, we’re proud to have successfully worked together with London Gypsies and Travellers, Southwark Traveller Action Group and Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group on a case that shed light on policies and legislation that have attacked and stripped back the cultural traditions of Gypsy and Traveller people like Ms Smith.”
A spokesperson from London Gypsies and Travellers also pointed out that the previous ‘gypsy status’ also impacted on Travellers needing a place on a public authority site – as well as to develop their own private sites.
“A year after the landmark Court of Appeal ruling which found the 2015 Planning Policy for Traveller Sites definition discriminatory, the government has finally changed the definition back to its original version,” said a spokesperson for London Gypsies and Travellers.
“Since 2015, we have seen too many local authorities in London failing to recognise and meet the needs of Romany and Traveller residents excluded by this definition, adding to the existing accommodation crisis,” they added.
“Our team is proud to have been involved in challenging the definition from the early stages, supporting community members to respond to the consultation, working with the Mayor of London's team on a more inclusive definition (of gypsy status) for the London Plan, and providing evidence of the wider negative impacts of the definition as part of the 'Lisa Smith' legal case.”
Lisa Smith and her interveners were represented by an expert legal team.
The joint interveners were represented by the barristers David Wolfe KC, Owen Greenhall and Tim Jones. Their solicitor was Chris Johnson of CLP.
Lisa Smith was represented by Marc Willers KC and Tessa Buchanan of Garden Court Chambers, and her solicitor was Keith Coughtrie of Deighton Pierce Glynn.
Whilst Traveller planning experts and campaigners universally welcome the change to ‘gypsy status’, some have pointed out that although the new ‘gypsy status’ is better than the old version, the idea that all Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers need to prove that they travel for work to be allowed to develop and build a Traveller site is inherently discriminatory in itself. They say that many Gypsies and Travellers may want to live on sites in caravans and mobile homes in an extended family group, but that they may not want to be forced to travel to do so, and that the definition is out of date and stuck in the past.
“Most Gypsy Travellers I work with self-identify based on distinctive cultural values, beliefs and traditions and not on whether they travel for an economic purpose,” says Traveller planning expert Alison Heine, who has 20 year’s experience of representing Gypsies and Travellers in planning battles with councils.
“One of the main benefits of a permanent settled base is that many Gypsy Travellers are now able to find regular paid employment close to where they live without the need to travel round the country,” she adds.
“Why is it necessary for Gypsy Travellers to have to show that they follow a nomadic habit of life in order to be allowed to live their chosen life (living in mobile homes and caravans on a permanent site as an extended family group) as a Gypsy Traveller?”
So what is the change to ‘gypsy status’?
‘gypsy status’ is in annex 1 of this document: Planning policy for traveller sites (publishing.service.gov.uk)
The previous version of ‘gypsy status’, that was found discriminatory by Appeal Court judges in 2022, was:
- For the purposes of this planning policy “gypsies and travellers” means: Persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family’s or dependants’ educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily, but excluding members of an organised group of travelling showpeople or circus people travelling together as such.
The amended and current version is (our emphasis on the change in bold):
- For the purposes of this planning policy “gypsies and travellers” means: Persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family’s or dependants’ educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily or permanently, but excluding members of an organised group of travelling showpeople or circus people travelling together as such.
*Showpeople have their own, separate planning definition
In a nutshell - those two extra additional words (or permanently) basically means that elderly and/or permanently disabled Travellers who can no longer travel are now allowed to continue living on existing Traveller sites, or to develop, build and live on their own Traveller sites - so, it’s a big deal.
The Travellers’ Times approached the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - who are responsible for planning laws - but they failed to respond with a statement.
Mike Doherty/TT News
(Lead photograph: Stock, London Horse Drive 2023 © Eszter Halasi)