Thursday, September 13, 2012


Why we must provide for Gypsy and Traveller communities

Thanks to the popularity of Channel Four's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the very public expulsion of residents from Dale Farm in Essex, most people think they know something about Gypsies and Travellers. This is certainly more than just a few years ago. To some extent this demystification is a good thing, although the means with which this has arisen is questionable.

In 2006, the Commission for Racial Equality concluded that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the most excluded group in Britain. In the intervening six years it appears very little has changed and some positive in-roads that were being made are now in reverse.

Research for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found that the exclusion of Gypsies and Travellers is particularly acute in the areas of health, education and social care, with the lack of culturally appropriate accommodation – sites on which caravans can be legally sited – a key driver of exclusion.

As a result of legislation and planning guidance between 2006-2010, significant, albeit slow, progress on increasing the number of available authorised pitches was starting to be made. This progress was largely attributable to two reasons. First, the duty placed on local authorities to compile an evidence base about accommodation need (local authorities are still required to do this); and second, the presence of the regional tier, which helped tackle apparent unequal need and which provided a very useful political scapegoat for local authority officers and elected members when developing local plans. The regional role is now no longer in place since the removal of the regional spatial strategies.

With this, and other changes to the planning process, the provision of pitches appears to have slowed even further. Although local authorities are still required to produce an evidence base for their decisions, the sense of urgency about doing so relies on the objectives set by local authorities.

Funding is still available, although much reduced, through the Gypsy and Traveller sites grant, which continues to help fund the development of new socially rented pitches. Local authorities are also incentivised to develop sites through application to the New Homes bonus. But it remains to be seen how likely it is that local authorities will take this approach when they could develop nice, familiar and far less politically sensitive bricks and mortar housing.

The costs of moving people on wheels, who are arguably homeless, is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the current climate of resource scarcity; we are all losing here.

Gypsies and Travellers lose as they continue to have a lack of available lawful accommodation and are continually vilified for living in overcrowded or unauthorised conditions. The rest of us lose as we continuously live in tension with Gypsies and Travellers who move on to and develop sites without planning permission. We lose the revenue generated by council tax and rent, and we help perpetuate poor outcomes in health and wellbeing for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Tackling and resolving these issues is complex – it always has been. Yet a concerted effort in meeting the shortfall of accommodation, around 6,000 to 7,000 pitches, and creating a pro-active rather than reactive approach to working with Gypsy and Traveller communities, will provide a pathway towards a fairer society for all.

Dr Philip Brown is research fellow in University of Salford's housing and urban studies unit. More information on his book, Somewhere Nowhere: Lives Without Homes, can be found here. He tweets @shusuphil

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