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‘The law needs to recognise the rights of Travellers. Everyone is pushing you aside, pushing you onto the next place. There’s no solution. Basildon want to push us to Chelmsford, Chelmsford want to push you to Manchester, and Manchester want to push you to the moon. They want to kick you out: once you’re not stopping on their doorstep it’s alright. And that’s not really a way to live. It’s not a way for government people or council’s to be carrying on. It’s not’s a human way to be living or to treat people.’ – Mary Flynn, Dale Farm resident and mother of four.
Hostility towards Travellers and Roma is endemic across the UK today. Local newspapers play on the prejudices of NIMBY local residents, reporting on the fear and anger that Travellers and Roma provoke in settled residents. Programmes like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding have fuelled the fires of discrimination by purposefully manipulating and cashing in on racist perceptions of travelling communities. However, these attitudes also underpin central government policy: earlier this year Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) warned that Traveller sites should ‘not dominate the nearest settled community, and avoid placing an undue pressure on the local infrastructure.’ In doing so, the DCLG present a conflict of interests between settled and travelling communities, implying that there is such a thing as ‘too many’ Travellers and Roma families living in a given area. In effect, they promote racism: the direct link can be seen in this weeks’ Express, which welcomed Pickles’ announcement of unlimited fines on caravans stopping on land without permission with the headline ‘New laws will stop Travellers from invading’.
Negative representations in the Media, racist attitudes and attacks, and discriminatory government directives all contribute to the presentation of Travellers and Roma as outsiders who intrude upon the settled community and can be legally denied the right to a home.
Current government policy amounts to a deliberate attempt to eradicate the travelling way of life. At the heart of the most recent attack on Roma and Traveller rights is Pickles’ DCLG. Evictions aren’t simply local disputes between settled residents and ‘intruding’ Travellers. Despite the guise of ‘localism’ adopted by the DCLG, central government policy is backing a wave of evictions, politically, legislatively and financially.
Twenty per cent of Travellers and Roma live under the threat of eviction, either on land that they own without planning permission or squatting on land. This is not by choice: there is a shortfall of almost 6,000 pitches in the UK, whilst half of all Traveller applications for planning permission are turned down [EHRC, 2012]. The government’s flagship announcement of £60 million for new and improved sites over the next 15 years will only translate into 510 additional pitches, providing just 1/12th of the amount needed. Pickles has used this as a fig leaf of ‘fairness’ to mask the institutional racism that Travellers and Roma face in the planning system. Last years’ Localism Act reinforced legislation criminalising Traveller and Roma communities, abolishing regional targets for councils to provide sites at the same time as allowing councils to evict Traveller and Roma communities even while they are applying for planning permission.
The local impact of the DCLG’s destructive policy agenda is already evident. South Cambridgeshire Council recently reduced its assessment of Traveller and Roma housing needs to zero without even a hint of consultation with the communities concerned. At the same time the council is threatening six Traveller families from Smithy Fen with homelessness. As funding is cut nationally for vital services helping Travellers and Roma engage in consultations and apply for planning permission, these communities become ever more excluded from the processes that determine their right to a home.
The end-game of the DCLG campaign of increased evictions and reduced site provision is the criminalisation and eventual eradication of the travelling way of life. Traveller and Roma communities with nowhere to live are being forced into a cycle of evictions, and ultimately into bricks and mortar accommodation. At Dale Farm, Basildon Council have refuse to accept a duty to provide alternative sites for the community it made homeless, offering bricks and mortar housing to a minority of families. This year has tested the endurance of the Dale Farm community, who have struggled to survive without electricity, water or sanitation on the road leading to their former home. This struggle for survival is a form of resistance; the families refuse to be forced into bricks and mortar accommodation and allow the travelling way of life to be eradicated. As a result, they face a second eviction this winter that may well force them away from the land where their children were born, and onto the side of roads and car parks.
As the anniversary of the last year’s eviction approaches on 19 October, the Traveller Solidarity Network is taking the fight for sites to the doorstep of Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government, in solidarity with the families at Dale Farm and Traveller and Roma families facing uncertainty and eviction across the UK. We are fighting for the right to a home and an end to evictions.