The village where Gypsies and locals learnt to live together

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The Gypsy site at Smithy Fen in the pretty Cambridgeshire village of Cottenham has been home to dozens of traveller families for many years, the two communities living peaceably together.

The Gypsy site at Smithy Fen in the pretty Cambridgeshire village of Cottenham has been home to dozens of traveller families for many years, the two communities living peaceably together.

But when travellers began to arrive from Ireland at Easter last year, the sheer numbers of those trying to live on the site posed a problem. Many of the long-term residents, who were predominantly English, were forced out and began using land next to the site without permission.

This in turn angered locals, and what appeared to be a classic confrontation between an angry populace and travellers evolved into a High Court row, with the latter winning the latest round on Monday.

The disagreements between the village and the travellers developed slowly. At first, people complained of an increase in crime, noise, litter and general nuisance. Last November, there were suggestions that travellers had been involved in the unsolved murder of a postman.

In May, South Cambridgeshire district council began moves to evict those on the unauthorised land and the conflict degenerated into a protracted legal and planning row. Two months earlier, 1,000 local residents refused to pay council tax for several months.

The travellers want to increase the 38-plot site by more than 70 plots, which residents claim could mean up to 5,000 travellers in a community of only about 6,000.

On Monday, the travellers won a High Court injunction, pending a judicial review, preventing the council acting to evict those living on unauthorised land. Planning appeals on applications to expand the site are still to be heard.

But while the legal dispute escalated, some residents had a rethink. They realised that the travellers had a point - they did not have many other places to go - and that the cost of removing them was disproportionate and would eventually fall on the residents.

The result was an unlikely alliance. In September, the Cottenham Residents Association and the Gypsy & Traveller Law Reform Coalition issued a joint statement backing the idea, endorsed this week by MPs, of councils being forced by law to provide permanent sites for travellers. Currently, councils have no obligation to do more than help travellers find sites for them to buy; even that is not backed by law.

The statement said: "Our organisations represent two communities that have very different but not necessarily opposing cultures ... Despite our differences there are a number of issues on which we share common agreement.

"The provision of adequate sites both public and private, residential and transit ... will, we believe, address the current acute shortage of sites and will also bring about an end to the illegal developments and unauthorised encampments which have resulted in the frustration of the settled community." Although the Government remains unconvinced, the idea is backed by police, farmers and many local authorities, which prefer being able to tell apprehensive people that they are legally bound to provide such sites.

The MPs said that there was a need to provide an extra 1,000 to 2,000 caravan plots within the next three years as the traveller population, currently between 90, 000 and 120,000 grows; the alternative is more situations like that at Cottenham.

Terry Brownbill, a spokesman for the Cottenham Residents Association, said that it was "appalling" that the Government was lukewarm to the idea. "We accept that they need somewhere to live. We are helping them to help ourselves. It is a very simple equation - if they move on to unauthorised land, then there are huge cost implications in trying to move them. The current legal and planning actions will end up costing the council around £1m which will have to be borne by the council tax-payers."

At Smithy Fen, the site is a mix of caravans and brick houses. The surrounding roads are littered with rubbish, there are old bikes in drainage ditches and graffiti on walls. No one at the site was willing to talk.

But local people said that despite this grim appearance, relations had been fine. Paula Johnson, the chairwoman of the parish council, said: "From a personal point of view the only time I meet people from the travelling community is at school and I have had no problem at all. Everyone is always very polite. I have never had an issue with them at all."

On the street, opinion among Cottenham residents was, like Ms Johnson, broadly in acceptance of the travellers, although most were reluctant to give their names. A woman aged 36 with two children said: "There were a few problems at the beginning but now things have settled down. All the travellers' children at the school seem really nice and they mix in well."

A woman aged 31 said: "At the beginning there was a bit of trouble and lots of anxiety in the village. There were cars racing up and down the road but it seems to have calmed down a lot since the murder [when] a lot of the travellers left. Personally I've found them extremely helpful when I'm out and about in the village."

Others are unhappy. One woman said: "We're frightened for our own property and our own safety. We've really had it with them." Margaret Phillips, 65, said: "Most people have to get planning permission before they can do anything but for some reason the travellers are allowed more freedom than most people in towns."

While South Cambridgeshire district council now backs the idea of a statutory duty to provide sites, it warns that residents' rights must be acknow- ledged. Daphne Spink, the council leader, said that Cottenham underlined the need for a clear national policy.

She said: "Legal loopholes in planning law mean that reasonable planning decisions made by councils - to refuse traveller encampments - have been overturned at the appeal stage on the ground that travellers' human rights should be protected. What about the hu- man rights of local residents?"

TRAVELLERS IN BRITAIN

* The Commission for Racial Equality recognises travellers and Gypsies as a distinct ethnic group

* The total population in Britain is said to be between 90,000 and 120,000

* Forty-one per cent of them are on local authority sites, 34 per cent on private ones, and the rest on illegal plots

* There are an estimated 3,500 travellers and Gypsies with no legal place to stop in England

* Public hostility towards Gypsies and travellers is greater than that towards gay and lesbian people, according to a Mori poll

* Blyth Valley council, which sent a form to residents asking them to tick their hates, listed Gypsies alongside violence, dog mess and litter

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