A statement by the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ)

CBCEW » Racial Justice » » A statement by the Catholic Associa...

Recent Public Policy Initiatives Regarding Gypsies and Travellers

Since 2005, the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) has been repeatedly calling attention to the prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage suffered by Gypsy and Traveller communities, and the lack of suitable accommodation and security of tenure on existing local authority sites.

This position was officially confirmed last year when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published Inequalities Experienced by the Gypsy and Traveller Communities: A Review (Research Report 12, Winter 2009). The Review pointed out that overt racism towards Gypsies and Travellers is still common. It went on to describe their ‘severe wide-ranging and mutually reinforcing inequalities and problems,’ including: early death; poorer health and inadequate health care; educational under-achievement; poverty and unemployment; high suicide rates; unfair treatment by the criminal justice system; and lack of access to culturally appropriate support services for the most vulnerable.

The EHRC Review also argued that ‘the lack of suitable, secure accommodation underpins many of the inequalities which Gypsy and Traveller communities experience.’ Thus the shortage of Sites is intrinsically linked to inequality and disadvantage.
In the light of the serious marginalisation and disadvantage of Gypsy and Traveller communities, we are concerned that recent initiatives by the Conservative Party and the Labour Government may undermine progress towards a more equal and more cohesive society.

Site provision in London – a continuing challenge

Over the past year, developments in London have highlighted the difficulties in providing additional, much needed sites. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has engaged in a series of consultations concerning the London Plan (which sets out an integrated framework for the development of London over the next 20-25 years). Among other matters, these consultations addressed the need for additional Gypsy and Traveller Sites. Response to the consultations was polarised – with some supporting a maximum option of 807 new pitches and others supporting a minimum option of 238 new pitches. After attempting a compromise of 538 new pitches, the Mayor has settled on a minimal target of 238 pitches.

The Mayor wants to improve on London’s poor record in increasing pitches, but he is adamant that the targets should achieve real outcomes. He expressed confidence that the new targets strike the right balance between what is needed and what is possible and sustainable. He believes his new targets also set an ambitious agenda for all involved.

This experience confirms the intractable difficulties we face as a society in providing adequate sites for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Our inability to meet this challenge over many years is the root of other problems involving these communities.

Nonetheless, both the main political parties, in their recent initiatives regarding Gypsies & Travellers, have concentrated on efforts at curbing anti-social behaviour without seriously addressing the deeper issues of racism, disadvantage and the severe shortage of sites.

Conservative Party Green Paper

The Conservative Party’s Policy Green Paper 14 (22 February 2010), Open Source Planning, includes a section on Travellers (p 18). The Green Paper reaffirms the Party’s belief in social justice and asserts that ‘different communities, should be free to lead their lives in different ways.’ The Green Paper goes on to assert that local authorities have a role to ensure the provision of suitable authorised sites to tackle genuine local need. Nonetheless, the policy put forward in the Green paper is punitive and fails to address underlying causes. The policy includes:

  • stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised development and illegal trespass.
  • a new criminal offence of intentional trespass requiring Travellers to make a contribution to the appropriate cost of services on authorised sites.
  • replacing the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights, which would address some of the current difficulties in evicting trespassers from private and public property.
  • doing away with top-down building targets, for traveller camps or new houses, which too often force local planning authorities to build new traveller camps on Green Belt land or to use compulsory purchase to acquire land for sites.
  • limiting the concept of ‘retrospective planning permission’ which has led to the planning system being abused by those seeking to use unauthorised sites.

Finally, the Conservatives would introduce a legal framework, similar to that which exists in the Irish Republic, to enable councils to remove unauthorised dwellings. This will allow councils to tackle the problem of unauthorised sites including both those built on land owned by travellers and land which is not.

Government guidance on anti-social behaviour

The Government’s Guidance on Anti-Social Behaviour associated with Gypsies and Travellers was similarly punitive and also ignored any reference to inequalities and shortage of sites.

On 23 March 2010, the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) published guidance for local authorities, the police and other agencies, setting out the strong powers that are available to them in dealing with anti social behaviour associated with Gypsies and Travellers. These powers include Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) and Injunctions.

The guidance makes clear what action can be taken on policing and prevention, fly-tipping, noise, straying livestock and un-taxed vehicles. The Minister also welcomed new planning rules which will speed up the enforcement process so that quicker action can be taken against developments without planning permission such as unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites.

Response to these new initiatives

The Conservative Party Green Paper and the Labour Government’s Guidance on Anti Social Behaviour were published within a few weeks of one another. Soon thereafter, on 25 March 2010, Lord Avebury (with Chris Johnson, Marc Willers, David Joyce and Andrew Ryder) issued a response to the Green Paper.

CARJ supports this response, and believes some of the arguments could be appropriately addressed to the Government’s Guidance on Anti Social Behaviour as well as to the Conservative Party Green Paper.

The Conservative Party Green Paper is more serious because it involves legislative changes (including human rights legislation), while the Government’s Guidance concentrates on using existing legislation. Nonetheless, both initiatives concentrate on enforcement powers addressed primarily at the behaviour of Gypsies and Travellers. Neither document seriously addresses the prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage suffered by these communities or the intractable difficulty experienced in trying to provide appropriate numbers of sites and how this might be overcome. Both initiatives, if put into practice without seriously addressing the shortage of sites, could create a negative atmosphere and undermine the difficult consensus that is gradually being developed in some local areas.

We should be supporting these local successes and encouraging others to emulate them. The 2009 EHRC report Gypsies and Travellers: Simple Solutions for living Together points out that investment in adequate site provision can generate income for local authorities, improve community relations and provide safe and decent accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Well-run, authorised sites can exist in harmony with settled communities. Investment in such sites could pay for itself over time. In Bristol for example, when authorised sites were developed, eviction costs fell from around £200,000 to £5,000 annually. The Council was also able to collect significant returns in rent, council tax and utility bills from the sites.

CARJ accepts and shares the underlying intent behind the new initiatives of the Conservative Party and the Government – to move toward a society characterised by law and order, mutual respect and social cohesion. However, this will not be accomplished by imposing punitive restrictions on extremely marginalised and vulnerable groups, without seriously addressing the causes of their marginalisation and vulnerability.

Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ)
20 April 2010