Localism: who’s really got the power?

“I don’t know what to do with my life. My life is upside down because all my things are squashed, me (sic) home has gone. I had a big place and they squashed it to the ground.”

Mary Jones*, 51, was forcibly evicted from a Gypsy and Traveller site in Essex last summer. She had lived at Hovefield for nine years but, like other gypsies and travellers, she was there without planning permission.

A shortage of authorised developments  – where planning permission has been granted – means Gypsies and Travellers often have nowhere else to go once evicted. Children’s education is often disrupted and registering with a GP becomes more difficult for people on the move.

Now there are fears that a new law could make it harder for Gypsies and Travellers to find somewhere permanent to live.

The Coalition Government’s proposed Localism Bill aims to give more power and responsibility to local councils and communities for planning decisions. This includes tougher action against people who abuse planning laws.

Regional spatial strategies, the previous government’s system for determining where new developments should be in each part of the country, will also be scrapped. A ‘top-down’ approach only makes people “feel put upon and less likely to welcome new development,” says the Coalition.

Carrot or stick?

But according to planning consultant and New Traveller Simon Ruston, councils need some sort of “stick” to compel them to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites. Scrapping regional spatial strategies places less onus on councils to act, especially if it means keeping votes, he says.

“Local government notoriously doesn’t have the political leadership. You get a few councils where you get some brave people who actually stand up and say ‘Right, sort this out’, but no local councillor in their right mind is going to want to stick up for travellers.”

Matthew Brindley, policy and research officer for the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain, also believes “it is a no-go area for a lot of politicians and ministers to touch on Gypsy and Traveller issues.”

“We’re not adverse to localism but the core issue here is that the majority of objections against gypsy and traveller sites occur at the local level (and) it makes it very hard for local planning authorities to fulfill their statutory duties to provide accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers,” he adds.

Brindley cites Dale Farm in Crays Hill, Essex, allegedly the largest Gypsy and Traveller site in Europe, where alternative sites are being sought for more than 80 families facing eviction by Basildon District Council from an unauthorised development.  According to Brindley, there were 1200 objections from the local community for a planning application on alternative land, which highlights the issue councils face.

Children playing outside their caravans at Dale Farm, Essex

Children play outside their caravans at Dale Farm, Essex (Copyright all photos: Susan Craig-Greene)

“How do you work with councillors who might have the best intentions in the world but come up against these staunch objections? They face this terrible decision of getting re-elected or losing the support of their constituents by upholding equality and human rights legislation.”

Councils not off the hook

But Tony Cooke, housing standards manager for South Norfolk Council, argues that the Localism Bill and the scrapping of ‘top-down’ targets does not mean councils will be let off the hook when it comes to Gypsy and Traveller site provision.

“The government is still making it quite clear that local authorities have to assess what the need is and have to meet that need in the same way they have to with affordable housing, and providing affordable housing gives rise to a lot of local opposition and yet for local authorities it’s part of their duties to see that it’s delivered,” he says.

At the last government count of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in July 2010, there were 3,636 on unauthorised sites, about 20 per cent of the gypsy and traveller caravan-dwelling population. Gypsy and Traveller communities are often the focus of social tension, particularly on unauthorised land, and the cost of clearing illegal developments can run into millions. The solution seems obvious.

“The only way you’re going to overcome this is by getting more authorised sites – ones that might be provided by local authorities or housing associations to rent, but also (by) helping families who’ve got the money and resources to develop sites to find suitable land,” says Cooke.

But no matter how authorised land is provided, it could take years to meet the site shortage and it remains to be seen how localism will influence future planning decisions.

Localism in practice

Terry Heselton is planning policy manager at Selby District Council where a major public consultation is underway about planning strategy, including Gypsy and Traveller sites, for the next 15 years. He thinks the spirit of localism is going to be hard to deliver in practice.

“The difficulty is going to be how you can balance local opinion – which nine times out of ten is going to be anti-development whether that’s for market housing, affordable housing or special housing for Gyspsies and Travellers – with the need to actually build more houses. The two don’t fit very comfortably together.”

Heselton suggests that residents’ expectations about empowerment promised by the new Bill may be thwarted by pressure on councils to meet housing and site shortages.

“There’s an aspiration that local communities can decide whether they have more housing or not (but) that’s unlikely to be the case as long as there’s still a need for housing.

“It’s a racing certainty that if we did a survey of all the parishes in our area, there would be very few of them saying they’re quite happy to take more developments, so on that basis where do you put those developments?

“Someone has to decide and that someone is normally the local council through the planning system, so there will still be clashes and the Gypsy and Traveller issue is no different.”

“A very emotive subject”

Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury, a campaigner for Gypsy and Traveller rights, believes objections to sites is not a simple matter of planning law.

“When people say they’re breaking planning regulations, that isn’t the true reason for the hostility towards gypsies and travellers – that’s a cloak. They are the only ethnic minority about whom anyone feels they can be completely racist.”

Heselton admits Gypsy and Traveller sites is “a very emotive subject” amongst communities and can trigger “a fairly hysterical reaction when there’s just the merest hint of a proposal.”

Although Selby District Council has yet to put forward proposals for specific Gypsy and Traveller sites, hundreds of residents have still raised concerns around traffic noise, extra pressures on amenities, increased crime and declining property values, which they fear such sites would cause.

One local resident, who did not want to be named, says that several Gypsy and Traveller sites in the Hillam and Monk Fryston areas of Selby have been set up by stealth without planning permission.

“As soon as they move into an area, the crime goes up (and) there’s litter, rubbish and burned out cars. People just can’t be allowed to flout the law just because they come from small and ethnic or disadvantaged group. It’s not desperation, it’s carefully-calculated exploitation,” he adds.

But Heselton can see two sides to the argument.

“Quite often some of the more organised ones will deliberately move onto a site on a bank holiday when there are no councils open and the police are probably engaged, policing a whole range of events – it’s no coincidence that they do that.  Of course, that then upsets people because they feel they’ve been deliberately targeted and they’re abusing the law.

“The other side of the coin is that (Gypsies and Travellers) will argue that if (they) don’t do that and go through the normal planning procedure, then (they are) always going to get the thumbs down.”

While battle lines continue to be drawn over planning decisions, Mary Jones is looking for somewhere else to settle down.

“I’m embarrassed because at this time in my life I don’t have a home and that’s all we wanted – just to have our own place, to have our children come and visit us and have a bit of comfort.”

*Name changed to protect identity



A lesson in community cohesion

Dale Farm eviction looms

New warning about localism for Gypsies and Travellers

“Lives at risk” say Dale Farm campaigners



Filed under News & Features

18 responses to “Localism: who’s really got the power?

  1. Eamonn Judge

    There is an inevitable conflict here and it isn’t just to do with travellers. As Chair of a Residents’ Association, the members want our Committee to react to any change which is either a breach of planning control, even if the land use is in theory ok, or to a nonconforming use which springs up somewhere. Everyone knows that if it is not dealt with it will simply encourage more of the same. This attitude is likely to get even stronger during periods like the present. For most people, their only tangible asset is their house, which may look after them in old age. Planning cannot buck the market, and everyone knows that if you place a low value use next to a high value use, it will drag down the value of the high value use. I don’t know the answer to providing gypsy/ytaveller sites in sufficient numbers in places where people will object. But I do know you will never see them placed near to where senior council officers and councillors live.

    • There is an answer, which is to provide sites out in the middle of nowhere so no one will object but this is not really and answer because the sites have to be where gypsies and travellers can access services. The basic problem is that there seems to be no research that confirms or disproves the concerns that people have about the location of gypsy and traveller sites.

  2. Eamonn Judge

    Sorry, typo, The penultimate sentence should say “…will not object”.

  3. Chris Whitworth

    I have a view, but no specific knowledge, other than that gained in 60 years of UK residence. The group labelled as gypsies or travellers appear to be apolitical anarchists, and seem to be totally parasitic on society. They are not alone in this, the same can be claimed for the disabled, sick, elderly, children and the unemployed. BUT, these other groups generally exist within society, do not usually exclude others and mainly attempt to redress their use of resources when they can. In my experience, compounded by most media coverage, the presence of a local traveller group is accompanied by social costs, litter, petty crime and disruption. I see no positive contributions in return. Just one example, from my old area. A large area of derelict land, on the border between Leeds and Bradford was regularly occupied by such groups. As a keen runner I crossed it often. I was spat at, tripped and generally discouraged from following public rights of way. When the groups finally left, I, as a ratepayer paid for the cleaning up of their excrement, abandoned scrap materials and other waste. No- I do not think they should be favoured over others!

    • Andrew Scrivener

      Hi Chris,

      Naturally you can only talk about your direct experience with the gypsies and travellers that you have encountered, but it is not necessarily so that all members of these groups behave without respect to others or to their environment. No doubt some members of these groups can behave in ways that demonstrate a deliberate disdain for Society, but I don’t know if all do. I remember working at Canary Wharf and being daily dismayed at how people alighting the underground would throw down their free newspapers on the escalator chassis before ascending to the surface. These were well-dressed people with good jobs, but they saw it as someone else’s job to clear up after them once they had read their paper. No doubt if challenged they would have argued that London Underground did not provide bins, but equally for very little expenditure of effort they could have carried their newspapers to their offices and put them into recycling bins.



    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your response. While there is no doubting your own personal experience, it is difficult to know whether it is fully representative of gypsies and travellers generally. The sorts of gypsies and travellers who might have been attracted to an area of wasteland between Leeds and Bradford might be quite different from the sort who move between other types of sites. The problem is that this social group tends to be treated as homogenous but we can’t tar everyone with the same brush. However, we just don’t know – we need research.

  4. Golfinglexy

    I believe there is room for everyone in society – so long as they join in with society-travellers and gypsies do not seem to do that – nor do they let their childrein join society. Do I trust them? not really, they seem to have their own laws and seem aggressive and less tolerent of equal rights – so I would prefer them not to be in my “back yard.

  5. Meerkat

    My parents live in a hamlet in the West Country – the local farmer applied for planning permission to build a (simple) house for his son so he could stay close to the family farm. Planning was refused on the grounds it was a dangerous exit onto the lane and that the land was designated for agricultural use only. Shortly afterwards the land was sold, bought by travellers who have now been camped illegally for 4 years. Their dogs have killed 3 lambs and the farmer is fed up with the constant petty thefts etc.

    Another illegal encampment 2 miles away is adjacent to an ancient woodland which they have damaged – when planning was sought for their 4 static caravans, the two neighbours who objected had all of their windows broken by stones on the same night. Coincidence? The police think so and claim that there is ‘no evidence’ it is linked to them objecting to the travellers’ application.

    Most people would have no objections to travellers if they behaved properly, and if they become ‘settled’ then surely they should have to be bound by the laws that bind the non travelling population. In other words apply for planning, pay taxes and contribute to the local community.

    • Eileen Barrett

      The question of accommodation is critical and it is clear that more authorised sites, provided by the local authority and/or housing associations are required; the issue is where! Smaller sites may help with community integration, including not only permanent ones but short-stay. Work on behalf of gypsies and travellers is perhaps often done without proper consultation. There are organisations and bodies working for and with gypsies and travellers that could be involved more with this. For example, organisations such as GATE, a community members association for gypsies and travellers who live in Leeds provide information, advocacy advice and support but are in the process of developing dialogue with service providers and working to promote positive understanding of their culture. On a personal note, my own family members lived for a number of years directly opposite to an authorised site run by the council and had no problems.

      • Thanks for your comment, Eileen. What you say at the end reminds me of what Tony Cooke, housing standards manager for South Norfolk, told me recently i.e. that once authorised sites are up and running, a lot of the concerns that residents voiced beforehand didn’t actually materialise. Sometimes they don’t even realise the sites have opened. However, I know that this is not the same everywhere.

    • Thanks for your comment, Meerkat – very interesting. This is illustrative of the sorts of conflicts which exist in this area for which there are no easy answers.

  6. Janie Percy-Smith

    As chair of governors of a primary school that has a number of Traveller children I’m very interested in the impact on children’s education of families being regularly uprooted. We work hard to integrate Traveller children into our school – not always easy given frequent parental hostility to schools, no doubt as a result of their own negative experiences – but there are a number of issues that make this even more complicated. For example, Traveller families are often ‘on the road’ during the summer months, as they pursue seasonal work around the country. Depending how long the children are absent we have to remove them from our books so there is no gurarantee of a place for them even if they return to the same area at the end of the summer. It would be much better if resources were available to schools to keep children on the school roll and for teachers to provide interesting work that children could do while away from school. If the new Localism Bill means that there are fewer Traveller sites, then there will be very little likelihood that continuity will be maintained in chidlren’s education as they increasingly move from school to school.

    • Many thanks for the comment, Janie. I spoke recently to a Traveller whose family had been evicted last summer from Hovefield, an illegal site in Essex. What upset her the most about it all was the fact that her 12-year-old daughter was no longer in school where she had been doing well and had made friends with children from both the traveling and settled communities. The mother was unable to read or write herself so it was a matter of pride that her daughter was getting an education. Since the eviction, the girl had had no schooling and has lost all confidence. And there will be many with a similar tale no doubt.

  7. My experience of gypsies began in childhood (during WW2 years) when we lived in the middle of arable fields. I wandered like the Wordsworthian cloud, was it?
    Free of fears of abduction anyway, but still met a flasher while escorting my two younger sisters at the top of the road. No, he wasn’t a gypsy so far as I remember.

    My mother would always be kind to gypsies who called upon us when they were in our district. She would buy pegs, and offer them water to drink etc. Even then, I seem to recall that I thought Mother was being cajoled, whether I knew that word or not, that is how is stayed in memory.

    I was the eldest of us three girls, and too clever for my own good. Told my youngest sister, barely three years between us, that she had come with the gypsies from the wood in the field across the road where crows built their nests and I went foraging for acorns, or just to go exploring, adventuring down dyke sides and between the ploughed furrows.

    Were the visiting Irish labourers who picked potatoes gypsies? I didn’t think so then. They were very kind in response to my lovely Mother’s provision of drinks etc. and brought us children sweets. This was during the years of rationing.

    My other memories concern Romany, the gypsy traveller whose programmes were on children’s hour or whatever it was called. After I had grown up I learned that Romany had been known to my maternal uncle, a Methodist lay preacher, so must have been one of the good gypsies.

    As I grew up I can only remember gypsies visiting my married home in the early sixties on one or two occasions, before they got fed up of my own hard luck stories. I did try and buy some odd duster or such like, but I veered between staying in their good books, none of that bad luck they would threaten, and none too much encouragement.

    More recently I meet the gypsies only when I visit Cumbria around the time of the Appleby horse fair. This year, a month back, I walked the dog through the fields and came on to the road beside parked wagons, cart horses and men, all ages from toddlers to the elders, being seen off by some local farm chap. Overheard them being asked what they were looking for, despite road signs every few feet warning about no parking, no caravans, no everything on this stretch of the highway. Despite all, they had obviously put the horses out to graze and had charred logs criss-crossed from their camp fire, while two old-style caravans were resting by the wayside on the opposite verge.

    So far as urban gypsies go, my local freesheet has in the past carried evidence of their trashing of waste land, industrial development sites, and departing with a thank you of waste that requires us taxpayers to remove it at our own cost. Not a good way to stay in our good books.

    I have read of gypsies settling in Meridien, the centre of England, where the local took to camping out ditto, to stop the illegal encampment, etc.

    So whether my views are balanced, it is hard to say. Gypsies appear to be less the old free spirited type, and more the blackstuffing moneyed variety, and people are up in arms about them locally for good reasons. It does not seem to me that there is any common ground between those who pay all their taxes and demands of social nature and those who seem to want their children educated and to live in their vans without bowing to society’s requirements.

    I hope this helps. Selby is not a million miles from my home town, just into the next County, and I can well understand the tug of war this thorny question of provision must push/pull in planning terms.

    As an afterthought, schools apparently discuss with young children of primary age the naming of these wandering people. None of that gypsy thing. They are travellers.

    Best wishes,
    Enid T

    • Thanks for your comment, Enid. I believe the term Gypsies and Travellers is an accepted form of description by Gypsies and Travellers themselves and that’s the term also used by campaigners and charities/voluntary organisations that support them. According to voluntary organisation NAVO (www.navo.org.uk), it “refers to a diverse group of people and their communities; their culture, ethnicity or nomadic habit. The different distinct communities are;- English Romany Gypsies, Welsh Gypsies, Scottish Travellers, Irish Travellers, Fairground and Showground Travellers, New Travellers and other such as European Roma and Bargees. Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are accepted as being racial groups under the Race Relations Act 1976.”

  8. Judy Yacoub

    All 27 EU member states have now adopted the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies and are expected to implement action plans to achieve ambitious outcomes addressing socio-economic exclusion of Roma peoples, focusing on health, housing, employment and education. The evidence is clear that despite some encouraging words in response to significant lobbying, we are a long way from achieving positive change in attitudes. The Roma comprise many diverse and distinct cultures, dialects, faiths and ethnicities. Lumping everyone together as “parasitic travellers and gypsies” simply underlines the innate bigotry and ignorance of a cultural majority and harms any prospect of inclusion. When people feel excluded, disrespected and unwanted by society is it reasonable for society to expect cooperation, respect and integration in return? Surely it makes sense to invest in safe, secure sites where children can grow up without experiencing constant harassment and bullying carried out in the name of “planning law.”

  9. “Safe, secure sites”? Like Gated Communities? Like East Riding Council’s idea of a safe, child-friendly, new development to replace two streets of 19th philanthropic workers’ housing now past their sell-by date. All this suggests that it is not the planning that is at fault, but the votes of Councillors who ride roughshod over best plans to carry out their own brand of improvement – how far is that from concentration-camp conditions? The persecution of certain groups because they do not appear to offer perfection. And to believe that Local Residents groups will make any difference will depend upon the local authority that has to be beaten. I think the best-laid plans are unlikely to be in the interests of the underdogs.

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