The very fact that the siting of travellers’ camps falls into John
Prescott’s portfolio should signify why a difficult issue has
become such an inflammatory one.
He is one of the few ministers who makes no bones about his mission
to engage in a class war, with well-settled rural communities his
main target – that Middle England epitomised by John Major’s vision
of “warm beer and cricket”.
This may explain why, until this week, he has ignored the rising
tension between illegal travellers’ sites and local communities.
His department’s belated reaction has been to announce plans to
bypass local democracy and give himself quite extraordinary powers
for deciding where new camps will be set up.
It’s a safe bet that these sites will be on greenfield sites under
Conservative-dominated local authorities. Whether this turns out to
be in the interests of community cohesion or the travellers
themselves is open to doubt. But first, perhaps there are a few
myths that need to be challenged.
When visiting the large travellers’ settlement at Billericay’s Dale
Farm, the actor Corin Redgrave described gypsies – or travellers,
as they are more commonly referred to – as “the most deprived
community in the country”. That’s an insult to the strong,
matriarchal spirit that knits these communities together. It is
surprising perhaps that he did not realise this.
It is easy to blame certain councillors, with an eye on a
forthcoming election, for voting down planning permission for new
sites. Yet I have heard council officers, proud of their liberal
credentials, complain that a sudden influx of travellers’ families
may adversely affect their beloved performance indicators. I can
see them thinking “what about my stars?”.
To be fair, when some travellers’ children were allocated places at
a brilliant infants’ school that thrives in one of Camden’s most
depressed inner city wards, the teachers reported no problem.
Instead they commented: “The only problems are the mothers.” I did
not dare ask what they meant.
What has changed is a perception that many travellers feel free to
ignore the planning laws and that strong-arm tactics are being
taken to remove them, as at Dale Farm. All grist to the mill for
newspapers such as The Sun. During my years on The Times, I may
have looked down on the tabloid’s more outrageous antics, but
learned to respect its ability to tap into the public mood. This is
no doubt why Tony Blair is so anxious to please its mass
What his deputy will never understand is that a laissez-faire
attitude to law enforcement is what fuels this terrible rise in
racism bubbling just below the surface in too many of our
The Conservative Party’s reaction leaves it open to accusations of
opportunism. Their idea that travellers are using the Human Rights
Act 1998 to contravene planning laws is largely irrelevant. Turning
a blind eye to law-breaking by a section of the community is
As a candidate in Slough in May’s general election, the racist
comments I heard – mostly from former immigrants against east
Europeans – were appalling. A similar intolerance is experienced in
communities where travellers have set up illegal camps.
So while I can agree, unusually, with Prescott that local
authorities have a duty to find suitable sites for their travelling
communities, I recoil with horror at the concept that Prescott
should act as the judge and jury on councils’ performance. And he
must take some of the flak for the hardening in attitudes.
Though gypsies established a splendidly romantic hold on my
imagination, this was later balanced by more direct experience of
illegal encampments in Surrey. In particular I remember a
distraught old lady whose cat had been killed in front of her
neighbours by a traveller’s dog. Complaints to the police and, yes,
to local social services, on her behalf met with a complete lack of
Good progress was made in providing habitable sites for most of our
travelling people during the previous Conservative administrations.
This was not without pain or dispute. However, I believe that the
general behaviour of most of these communities encouraged a
reasonable degree of tolerance.
Playing fast and loose with this attitude, as Labour has done, is
distressing for all involved. For all the talk of social cohesion,
not enough of our travellers can be described as integrated within
local communities. I do not know whether most of them want to be.
But this polarisation has horrible echoes of the estrangement
between the governed and the governing in other communities.
Sheila Gunn is a Conservative councillor in Camden, London