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

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

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

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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