The Con-Dem coalition has started an offensive against the most marginal and disadvantaged of all Britain’s minorities, Gypsies and Travellers.
Putting aside brave new world soundbites on ‘freedom’, ‘fairness’ and civil liberties, the first wave of ‘efficiency savings’ has wiped out £30 million already offered to local authorities and housing associations to support the development of Gypsy and Traveller sites.
New Labour in their own terms had pursued a genuinely progressive policy towards the desperate need of Britain’s remaining travelling Gypsies and Travellers. John Prescott driven by the ridiculous costs to local authorities of clearing up the ‘illegal’ encampments of Gypsies and Travellers pushed for a revival of the 1960s policies of pressurising local councils to provide sites. Labour was also pushed by the European Court in Connors v UK in 2004 to do something about security of tenure on sites.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), later the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), (how we will miss the acronyms of Labour ‘governance’!) set up its ‘Gypsy and Traveller Unit’, and embarked on ‘evidence based’ policymaking by forcing local government, as part of developing Housing Needs Assessments, to commission ‘Gypsy and Travellers Accommodation Needs Assessments’ (GTANAs).
Counting Gypsies has always been fraught with racist overtones and the research was not always free from pressures from councillors and officers to make sure sites were not in their backyard. The government also issued new planning guidance circulars which, together with the results of the research showing the need for new sites and plots, was beginning to have the effect, albeit very slowly, of at least improving many of the appalling sites provided by local authorities and forcing them to plan a few more plots. A few Gypsy and Traveller families were winning planning appeals and a few were setting up their own new sites.
The scale of the Gypsy ‘problem’ is remarkably modest. We have to remember that Gypsy and Traveller families with a travelling way of life have probably just 3,729 caravans on ‘unauthorised’ sites in the whole of England, with a further 13,708 caravans on council and private sites. And ‘It is estimated that the entire Gypsy and Traveller population could be legally accommodated if as little as one square mile of land were allocated for sites in England’.
We have to keep this particular fact at the forefront of our minds when analysing the sheer scale of anti-Gypsyism in British political culture.
Playing the Gypsy ‘race card’
Before the election there were ominous signs that the Conservatives were at least willing to play one race card. (David Cameron was involved in writing and planning Michael Howard’s openly racist campaign in 2005 for a ‘Gypsy law’ of criminal trespass.) Buried in a Conservative planning ‘green paper’ in February were proposals not only on Criminal Trespass but a determination to roll back all the guidance and directives Labour had issued to pressure local government to provide sites. Before the election only a few academic and political campaigners, Gypsy and Traveller organisations and news web sites (like Travellers’ Times and Friends, Families & Travellers (FFT)) publicised the threats of Tory policy. Lord Avebury the Lib Dem peer who since his days as Eric Lubbock has been a life time campaigner for Gypsies and Travellers, was one of them. (Read an IRR News story: ‘Notes on the new Conservative Traveller policy’)
Eric Pickles and ‘Our Gypsy War’
The red-top and local press continued up to the election and beyond to provide the ‘racist wallpaper’ to debates. They were feeding on and fuelling perhaps the most virulent aspect of the common sense racism around in political debates – anti-Gypsyism.
In the midst of debates on the policies of the coalition the Sunday Express on 23 May decided to remind the Tories in a banner front page story of one policy priority to hold fast to – their ‘Gypsy Camp Crackdown’. The Express group has along history of promoting anti-Gypsyism. The links between the new communities secretary Eric Pickles and the anti-Gypsy campaigning of the Express group go back to 2008 when he was the shadow minister. In an article on Labour’s sites policy headed ‘7,500 sites for Gypsies on the way’, Pickles had said: ‘Communities across the country are going to face the bombshell of having a traveller camp dumped on their back yard, whether they like it or not. Councils are powerless to resist these regional targets and are being bullied into building on the green belt or using compulsory purchase powers to provide the land for travellers. It’s not fair that hard-working families have to save up to get on the housing ladder while Travellers get special treatment at taxpayers’ expense.'
Throughout 2009 and into the election period the interaction of media and political discourses tended to reinforce the ‘common sense racism’ stereotypes of Gypsies and Travellers. ‘Cost’ and ‘mess’ and the effects of sites on house values dominate debate. The threat ‘they’ posed to a beautiful conservative rural England was perhaps summed up in February 2009 with the ‘threat to build a travellers site of 20 caravans half a mile from Camilla Duchess of Cornwall’s countryside home … at Reybridge, near Lacock, North Wiltshire’ on a former pony paddock. Objections were based on the site being near Lacock ‘an untouched 13th century village…a unique mediaeval village … a sensitive area’. Period dramas were filmed there – Pride and Prejudice, Cranford and Harry Potter – presumably without the ‘period’ Gypsies of the past.
In the lead up to the election Express and Mail articles built on and fuelled the familiar narratives. ‘Gypsy camps’ were threatening to despoil ‘beauty spots’ and the heartlands of Tory voters in rural idylls like those in William Hague’s seat in Ripon in North Yorkshire: ‘The Gypsy capital of Britain will be a county famous for its quaint villages and rolling hills on the orders of Government planners. They have told Yorkshire to provide 255 new sites for Gypsies by the end of the year’.
Not a word about the thousands of ‘our’ caravans already sited on the Yorkshire coast – one of the largest concentrations of holiday and residential caravans in Europe.
Meanwhile ‘in the heart of Jane Austen country’, ‘living in a small village surrounded by rolling countryside, the residents of Ropley in Hampshire know how valuable their peace and quiet is’. Villagers raised £225,000 to buy back land from a Traveller threatening to seek planning permission for a site.
The familiar conflict language was used and abused. ‘Gypsy Invaders' were producing a ‘battleground' for what ‘we’ all see as ‘Our Gypsy War’. There was also the ‘Battle of Hemley Hill’ in ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty’.
Eric Pickles certainly identified with the ‘War’. Two days after the election in a major piece in the Daily Express Adrian Lee reported from the front line of ‘a community under siege’, Meriden in Warwickshire, ‘where 84-year-old Nancy Fulford is part of a campaign which has blockaded roads and has established ‘vigil’ camps to stop a Traveller site of seventeen caravans, one of which is now called ‘Camp Nancy’. ‘Her entire way of life is threatened by an unauthorised gypsy site within a few yards of her front door. A motley assortment of caravans, vehicles and diggers blights the outlook. The travellers overwhelmed the village without warning, using underhand tactics to try to avoid eviction’.
Lee claims that on the (May) ‘Bank holiday Friday a planning application was lodged with Solihull Council, a few minutes before the offices were scheduled to close. It’s a common tactic used elsewhere, allowing Gypsies an extra day to get settled and start building work before enforcement teams return to work’.
Eric Pickles obviously wants to be seen to be joining ‘Our Gypsy War’ in rural and suburban England. Our new communities secretary used his august office to actually issue an official government warning to local authorities on 28 May on the eve of another Bank Holiday, presumably clearing the ground for a legislative offensive against Gypsies and Travellers.
‘Communities and Local Government Secretary of State Eric Pickles is taking pre-emptive action to prevent unauthorised development over the coming bank holiday weekend. Mr. Pickles is writing to all Local Authority Chief Planners to warn them to be alert and ready for action if any significant planning applications get submitted before the bank holiday….Mr. Pickles is encouraging Councils to have planning officers on call over the weekend’ to prevent ‘ a small minority of people’, ‘illegally developing their land’ over the holiday.
Politicians and the fuelling of anti-Gypsyism
Politicians of all parties routinely in and out of Parliament have fuelled the climate of anti-Gypsyism. According to Royce Turner: ‘Persistent themes of criticism and vilification applied in blanket fashion condemning just about all Gypsies and Travellers as dishonest, criminal and dirty. Gypsies are rarely discussed … but when they are they are almost always portrayed in a negative light. Labour, Conservative and Ulster Unionist have all categorised Gypsies and Travellers in this way.'
Gypsies and Travellers are routinely described as ‘illegally’ occupying land, contrasting them with the majority of law abiding citizens. Politicians and the media continue to portray Gypsies and Travellers not as the most deprived of all minority groups but actually being privileged, getting an advantage over middle-income Britain, the taxpayers.
The Daily Express reported a scheme by Mendip council to provide low interest loans for developing Gypsy and Traveller sites which was ‘dismissed as an insult to struggling buyers in other communities.’ The Taxpayers Alliance weighed in with: ‘These loans are an insult to many hard-working families who are struggling to get together the money to put down a deposit on a property. Singling out this one community for loans is grossly unfair, particularly if some do not pay their share in council tax and violate planning regulations.'
The Labour government also joined in the pre-election demonising of Gypsies and Travellers by issuing new punitive Guidance on managing anti-social behaviour related to Gypsies and Travellers which ignored any reference to inequalities and shortage of sites. The guidance for local authorities, the police and other agencies, set out the strong powers that are available to them in dealing with anti social behaviour associated with Gypsies and Travellers.
Resistance, lobbying and building alliances
Only very rarely does one see an interview with a Gypsy and Traveller organisation in the media – but this has been changing. Gypsies and Travellers have had organisations for many years – the Gypsy Council was founded in 1966. In more recent years Irish Travellers established a national welfare organisation, the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, which was set up in 1999.
The self-organised campaigning and resistance of Gypsies and Travellers rarely appears in the media or in academic analysis. In fact the disruptive and controversial tactic of occupying council land, playing fields and the like should be seen both as desperation and political resistance, trying to force particular councils to actually change attitudes to sites. (Colm Power in one of the few studies of Irish Travellers in England notes the central importance of the mobile phone in Gypsy and Traveller life, particularly to organise within a few hours large occupations of land.)
Organised resistance to evictions has been a central part of Gypsy and Traveller everyday life for many years. For the past few years the Conservative council in Basildon, Essex has been planning one of the largest evictions in Europe at the Dale Farm site, recruiting bailiffs and reputedly being willing to spend ‘three million euro’. It has been met by a determined campaign by local Gypsies and Travellers assisted by veteran campaigner Gratton Paxton, which has launched legal challenges involving both the Council of Europe and United Nations. (Read an IRR News story: ‘Lords refuse to hear Travellers’ appeal, whilst UN pledges support’)
Gypsies and Travellers have also had to organise and fight to retain the summer round of horse fairs – the only way in which families, communities and organisations can ‘network’. The major fairs at Appleby in Cumbria and Stow have survived, but many other local fairs have been harassed and disappeared.
Gypsy and Traveller organisations have also been effective when they have forged alliances with Gorjas (non Gypsies), particularly lawyers and activist academics. In 1995 a Traveller Law Research Unit was set up at Cardiff University and with a Traveller Law Reform Bill published in 2002 the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition was founded. Thomas Acton, professor of Romany Studies at the University of Greenwich, also promoted a string of books from the University of Hertfordshire Press including the influential Here to Stay: the Gypsies and Travellers of Britain.
These alliances and campaigns have also produced action in parliament with evidence to select committees and investigations and the establishing of the All Party Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Group with the assistance of Lord Avebury. Three of the contenders for the Labour leadership John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and, perhaps interestingly, Ed Balls were, in the last parliament, members of this Group. The Group also included prominent Conservatives Caroline Spelman, the new environment secretary and Peter Bottomley, along with some Lib Dem MPs and Lord Avebury. Their efforts seemed to have produced a small amendment to housing law which would have given Gypsies and Travellers a few more rights to security on existing sites – apparently lost in the ‘wash up’ period before the election.
Pressure on the Labour government produced some results for Gypsy and Traveller campaigners and organisations. Building on the existing network of Travellers Education projects at a local level, the government introduced in June 2008 Gypsy and Traveller History Month with an emphasis on positive images of Gypsies and Travellers. The Lottery Fund helped establish Travellers’ Times as a voice for Gypsies and Travellers. Other groups managed to access funds too. These funding gains were augmented by some token involvement in consultative and advisory bodies, including briefly having a Romany Gypsy Commissioner on the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). The CRE (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission – EHRC) started actually recognising the existence of Gypsies and Travellers with its Common Groundreport of 2006 and monitoring policy progress in its 2009 report Gypsies and Travellers: Simple Solutions.
Campaigning against the Coalition
The early cuts targeting Gypsy and Travellers have already been met with protests from Gypsy and Traveller organisations and their allies. Facebook sites are organising demonstrations and protests – no doubt being developed at Appleby Fair from 3-7 June A network of academics, researchers and campaigners have signed protest letters. (Read an IRR News story: ‘Defend the remaining travelling Gypsies and Travellers, and Showmen’.) The campaigning this time needs to be effective, as the web petitions claim, that there is a real threat of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of travelling Gypsies and Travellers and the disappearance of the few who remain.