Government urged to give ground to travellers and address sites shortage

    The media has been filled with reports all summer of gypsies and
    travellers setting up home illegally next to disgruntled
    communities. But why are travellers having to break the law to set
    up camp?

    In 1994, the Conservative government removed a statutory duty on
    councils to provide sites. It said the focus should change to
    travellers buying land on which to set up sites and ease pressure
    on the public purse.

    But many feel the policy has led to a shortage of sites forcing
    many gypsies and travellers to create illegal ones. There are 324
    legal sites in England but Sasha Barton, senior policy officer at
    the Commission for Racial Equality, says thousands more are
    needed.

    The CRE wants the housing bill now going through parliament to be
    changed to place a statutory duty back on councils to provide and
    be more proactive in advocating gypsy and traveller sites. An
    amendment, drafted with the CRE and tabled by Lord Avebury, is due
    to be debated in parliament this month.

    Barton says gypsies and travellers find it difficult to gain
    planning permission for sites. “In some councils it seems almost
    impossible to get planning permission and pass all the criteria,”
    she says.

    She adds that many councils support the reinstatement of the duty
    to provide sites but local opposition makes it difficult to get
    agreement.

    The Local Government Association wants a duty to make or facilitate
    site provision placed on councils, supported by a central subsidy.
    For an organisation usually championing greater freedom for
    councils it may seem an unusual move, but the LGA sees it as the
    only way site provision can “really be improved in the longer
    term”. It cites the high costs incurred by councils in dealing with
    unauthorised camping and planning breaches as a major
    problem.

    Although a duty would likely lead to a drop in illegal sites, would
    residents be comfortable living next door to the legal alternative?

    Barton admits this could be a problem but says the key could lie in
    a consultation that all parties, including the gypsies and
    travellers themselves, can take part in.

    Emma Nuttall, unit manager for voluntary organisation Friends,
    Families and Travellers, also supports a duty. She says that about
    25 per cent of gypsies and travellers have nowhere to legally put
    their caravans.

    “They can be evicted several times a week,” she says. Although the
    group is in effect homeless and therefore eligible for social
    housing, Nuttall says many of them do not want to be put in bricks
    and mortar accommodation.

    She adds that if gypsies and travellers are made to move around
    constantly, their access to health, education, social services and
    employment opportunities will be restricted.

    A spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said the
    government was considering the argument for placing a statutory
    duty on councils in a policy review of gypsy and traveller issues
    to be published later this year. The department is also conducting
    an inquiry into gypsy and traveller sites, which is due to report
    in the autumn.

    The rest of 2004 could set the future for gypsy and traveller
    policy for some time. If a statutory duty is backed, it could go
    some way to providing the stability that even a travelling
    community needs.

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