Gypsy horse fair row could go to European Court

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The Independent Online
The future of one of Britain's biggest gypsy horse fairs is threatened by a legal battle which the event's organisers say they are prepared to take to the European Court of Human Rights.

The dispute is over the fair at Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, where about 2,000 gypsies have gathered twice a year for the past century to buy and sell horses, drink and socialise. Local people in the Cotswold town and the nearby village of Maugersbury say that the week-long fair is noisy, dirty, disruptive and leads to an increase in crime.

Most of the gypsies park their caravans in two fields in Maugersbury, the biggest of which was bought by a group of four travellers last year. In effect, they have become the organisers of the fair, held in May and October. Now the district council has issued enforcement notices to prevent the caravans parking in the fields. The council says the gypsies are breaking planning regulations, ruining the view and causing problems for local people. Although the council claims that it is tackling illegal parking and not trying to stop the fair, the gypsies say it aims to kill off the event by closing the only available site for their caravans.

It would be legally difficult to stop the gathering any other way because it has developed from a general fair established by a Royal Charter in 1476.

James Ellis, solicitor for the council, said: 'What we are not trying to do is stop the Stow fair. The problem is the sheer scale of the parking, the impact it has on the local residents and the environmental problems it causes.'

But Luke Clements, solicitor for the four gypsies, said: 'We will appeal against the notices in the next few days. This is a back-door way for the council to stop a fair which it does not like. We will go to the European Court of Human Rights if we have to.'

Mr Ellis believes that the gypsies will camp elsewhere if they are banned from the fields. But Chief Inspector Jim Tidmarsh, of Gloucestershire Police, said: 'There is no alternative to them parking there.' Most local people are strongly against the fair, especially those living closest to it.

Robert Bartlett, a farmer and chairman of Maugersbury parish council, said: 'Putting the caravans in the fields is totally illegal. They put 400 caravans there with no sanitation.'

He said that during recent fairs a wall and fences had been knocked down, a water mains diverted and goods stolen from local shops. Last October it cost the district council pounds 500 to clean up after the gypsies had gone.

But Mr Clements said: 'People may not like the fair but it is well run. The organisers keep it tidy and clear up afterwards.'

The appeal against the enforcement notices will be heard by a planning inquiry and the delay will mean that the May fair and possibly the October one will go ahead.