Out of site

How many of us have dreamed of escaping the rat race and going
wherever the mood takes us? Strange then, that the settled
community finds it so difficult to accept the nomadic lifestyle of
gypsies and travellers. This anti-traveller feeling dates to the
16th century when Romany gypsies first arrived in Britain and Henry
VIII passed laws discriminating against them.

Local authorities have not had to provide accommodation for
gypsies and travellers since 1994, when the Criminal Justice and
Public Disorder Act repealed the statutory duty to provide static
sites contained in the Caravan Site Act 1968. Yet even when this
duty was in place – and central government funding was available to
implement it – there was little enforcement to ensure councils
complied, and many failed to do so.

The publication in January of the Traveller Law Reform Bill gave
hope to those working with travellers that improvements could soon
be seen (see below). This private member’s bill was drafted by the
traveller law research unit at Cardiff University and could
introduce significant new duties for English and Welsh local
authorities in relation to the travelling population.

But the bill failed to get a second reading when it was
introduced in the House of Commons in July and will have to start
the parliamentary process again.

It needs government support, says Emma Nuttall, unit manager for
voluntary organisation Friends, Families and Travellers. Even if it
does not become law, all is not lost, says Nuttall. The government
could transfer some clauses into housing or homelessness
legislation to address the main problems faced by gypsies and

But is there the political will and local funding to make the
bill work? Nuttall believes that proposals in the bill would not
require local authority finance. But Jane Held, co-chairperson of
the Association of Directors of Social Services’ children and
families committee, disagrees. She says: “Councils will find it
hard to identify additional resources to fund the new duties, which
will mean very patchy implementation, with some councils being
proactive and building on what they are already doing, and others

There are 325 local authority residential sites for travellers
in England, providing more than 5,000 pitches. But about one-third
of travelling people do not have a pitch on such a site and, since
the Caravan Site Act was repealed, there has been no impetus for
councils to provide more sites. Meanwhile, planning and land
control laws have made it difficult for travellers to remain
mobile. It is estimated that 90 per cent of their traditional
stopping places have been made inaccessible in the past 20

The government’s thinking behind repealing the Caravan Site Act
was to privatise sites by encouraging travelling communities to
find land, buy it and live on it. But this has proved difficult.
Where 80 per cent of the settled population are granted planning
permission on their first application, this is the case for only 10
per cent of travellers.

Gypsies and Irish travellers are ethnic minorities protected by
race relations legislation, but their issues appear to have fallen
off the agenda. “It’s an anomaly that they are the only group of
people who don’t have their housing needs met,” says Nuttall. “They
are homeless and could be offered council housing, but that’s not
what they want. It doesn’t meet their cultural need.”

Without a pitch on an authorised site, travellers are forced to
keep moving and resort to unauthorised sites. They then face
problems in accessing health care, education, social services and
basic amenities such as running water and toilets. It is not
difficult to see why travelling communities have a higher infant
mortality rate and lower life expectancy rate than the settled
population in the UK. “The only way this can be resolved is by
providing accommodation,” says Nuttall.

Children can be particularly badly affected. Save the Children
believes that travelling children’s rights are not being met under
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is running an
early years project in Herefordshire to work with travelling
families, schools and local authorities to overcome segregation and
make mainstream services accessible. Margaret Thompson, the
charity’s assistant programme director for the Midlands, says: “The
very nature of the children’s lifestyle actually reinforces their
social exclusion, especially when mobility is enforced.” Pre-school
services are difficult to access, which makes travelling children’s
transition to school even more problematic. “Schools will block
them by saying that there aren’t any places in the hope that they
will have moved on by the time this has gone to the local education
authority,” says Thompson.

What about when children grow up? As a gypsy liaison officer for
Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, Surrey, Kevin Ryan is responsible
for two sites in the area with 30 pitches between them. He says
that families are not allowed to “double up” on pitches, with the
effect that, when the children grow up, they have to move away,
leaving behind family and friends.

Travellers who do get a pitch on an authorised site are now less
likely to move around because they do not want to lose it. At the
moment, there are 84 families on the waiting list for the two
sites. “Just because they don’t travel, it still runs deep in their
blood that they are gypsies, they still have their beliefs, history
and culture, as far as they are allowed to,” says Ryan.

Surrey Council owns 19 sites, but it will be difficult for other
councils to find suitable land on which to build sites, bearing in
mind the feelings of the settled population about travellers, says
Ryan. Usually, sites are put where there is no other use for the
land, under railways, next to motorways or by landfill sites.

Research from the traveller law research unit suggests that the
money spent on evicting travellers from unauthorised sites may be
twice that needed to build more sites. Moving travelling families
from one place to the next perpetuates the problem rather than
solves it.

The easy solution is to provide more sites, says Thompson. “But
without statutory duties, we haven’t got a lot of hope that it will
be much different,” she says. “There’s no political will behind it
– there’s no votes in saying we’ll have a gypsy site in your

Meanwhile, the children who were 14 when Ryan started his job in
Epsom and Ewell are now 19, with nowhere to go. He says: “It’s
going to be an ongoing problem unless sites are provided and I
would suggest that it’s going to get worse.”    

Traveller law reform bill proposals

  • Create a gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Commission to assess
    the need for sites in England and Wales and monitor the provision
    of accommodation.
  • Local authorities to have a duty to provide or facilitate the
    provision of sites for gypsies and travellers in their area; for
    example, by giving planning permission for owner-occupied sites,
    “tolerating” established sites and working with housing
    associations that would have powers to provide and manage
  • Local authorities to provide safe play areas and play equipment
    for children living on travellers’ sites, as well as facilities or
    equipment to ensure a safe and healthy environment for site
  • Local authorities to prepare and publish a gypsy and traveller
    accommodation programme.
  • If local authorities failed to provide sufficient sites, this
    would be taken into consideration if they tried to evict travellers
    from unauthorised sites. Planning inspectors would also take this
    into account when looking at planning applications from travellers
    wanting to set up their own sites.
  • Local education authorities to have gypsy and traveller
    education plans setting out the arrangements to meet the
    educational needs, the arrangements for pre-school education and to
    promote lifelong learning for those older than 16.
  • Housing Corporation funding to be extended to caravan site

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