Gypsies win battle against eviction

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Indy Politics

Travellers who have settled on a site in South Cambridgeshire yesterday won an injunction stopping the local District Council from evicting them. The local residents' association from the nearby village of Cottenham however is backing an idea of the Government forcing councils to take action.

Travellers who have settled on a site in South Cambridgeshire yesterday won an injunction stopping the local District Council from evicting them. The local residents' association from the nearby village of Cottenham however is backing an idea of the Government forcing councils to take action.

The court ruling came as pressure is mounting from all sides on the Government to ensure that councils provide adequate sites for travellers and Gypsies, amid warnings of further confrontation between them and angry residents.

Although the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) has said it does not support enforcing sites in every area, a move backed yesterday by a committee of MPs, its chairman believes ministers may have no option and are delaying a decision before the election for political considerations.

Police, farmers, local authorities and even residents' groups back an increase in the number of sites, with enforcement to ensure councils comply. But the Government is up against council reluctance to override the wishes of local people, and a widespread belief that there are no votes in the issue. Gypsy and traveller groups have warned that a "Stephen Lawrence-style" murder of one of them was possible, because of the "campaign of hatred" being stirred up by some sections of the media.

The number of incidents has increased ­ in places as far apart as Essex, Worcestershire and Somerset ­ usually where travellers take over land without planning permission. Some communities complain of being "swamped" by the numbers: in Billericay, Essex, all but one of the 50 pupils at a village school are from an illegal site after angry parents withdrew their children, claiming the Gypsies had "hijacked" it.

Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton & Reddish and chairman of the committee of MPs which scrutinises the ODPM, said the Government was "scared stiff" of agreeing to its recommendation that councils should have a legal obligation to provide sites. "We heard a huge amount of evidence from people from all sides who back this, including bodies like the National Farmers' Union and the Association of Chief Police Officers. And there is a lot of resentment between local authorities who do carry out their moral obligation to provide sites and those who don't. I hope the Government will eventually act, but I don't think it will be this side of the election."

His stance is backed by the Local Government Association and the Commission for Racial Equality.

Since the last Conservative government removed the obligation on local councils to provide sites for travellers in 1994, councils are advised only to help travellers find their own sites to buy and settle on. Many authorities do not, and those that do find the sites attract more travellers than they can cope with, causing local annoyance.

The committee report says there are 14,300 Gypsy caravans in the UK, a figure which increases during summer but is steadily growing overall; two years ago, the figure stood at 13,700. The total population is between 90,000 and 120,000.

About 41 per cent are on local authority sites, 34 per cent on private ones and the remainder on illegal plots. The committee says between 1,000 and 2,000 extra plots will be required within three years; it suggests each authority should provide a site for 18 caravans.

Andrew Ryder, of the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition, said he did not think the climate was one in which "bold and effective measures" to give travellers decent homes were possible. In a letter to Mr Blair, his coalition has warned: "The media are stirring up a campaign of hatred against Gypsies and travellers. We are being described as 'invaders', 'rural terrorists'. We are fearful of where this hate will lead."

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