Liverpool shows how it can house travellers in harmony

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Oil Street, a former scrap-yard site in Liverpool, exudes all the glamour that its name suggests. A 30ft concrete ventilation shaft from one of the Mersey tunnels dominates the skyline, while the city's first £1m apartments provide a distant reminder of elusive wealth. But the street found itself in demand last week, as it became the location of Britain's most expensive council travellers' site.

Oil Street, a former scrap-yard site in Liverpool, exudes all the glamour that its name suggests. A 30ft concrete ventilation shaft from one of the Mersey tunnels dominates the skyline, while the city's first £1m apartments provide a distant reminder of elusive wealth. But the street found itself in demand last week, as it became the location of Britain's most expensive council travellers' site.

The timing of the refurbished site's opening, amid trenchant national hostility towards travellers whipped up by the political right, was potentially disastrous and Merseyside Police were present as the first caravans rolled in. But despite reminders in the local press that "almost £1m of taxpayers' money" had gone into the place, there was no hint of local vitriol.

Not only is the high-walled site too far from residential areas to offend, but residents are being relocated here from unsightly, unauthorised sites elsewhere in the city. Consequently when the Liverpool Echo - a good barometer of Liverpool life - led its front page on the subject of Oil Street it was with the banner headline "We need more Gypsy sites", which was the plea from Merseyside Police. The force said Gypsies and travellers faced "abuse and discrimination" from communities and often had no option but to stop on unauthorised sites.

Liverpool's large community of mainly Irish travellers has been confronted with some tough commercial realities in the consultation process that has accompanied two years of planning for the new site, which is 25 per cent funded by Liverpool council and 75 per cent by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, whose demand that councils find more sites precipitated the storm of anti-traveller sentiment.

The travellers wanted kitchen blocks - since most do not like cooking in their confined living space - and showers with disabled seats, because life on the roadside creates a large incidence of arthritis among the elderly. The cost, the travellers were told, would be £83 a week rent (£30 a week more than most Liverpool council house tenants pay) and £854 council tax (caravans are Band A).

The travellers were willing to pay whatever it took for facilities that other citizens consider their right, said Dawn Taylor, Liverpool council's service manager for Gypsies and travellers, who co-ordinated the project. "It was a bit of a shock to some," Ms Taylor said. "But our message was 'welcome to the real world'. It's a balance between rights and responsibilities." That means there is more pressure to earn money on men such as Paddy O'Driscoll, 50, one of the residents, who says he has driven "any lorry that's going" over the years to bring in some income and lists tree-topping and gardening among other occupations.

Mr O'Driscoll has been parked up in Liverpool for 30 years - largely because his wife Bridget, 57, wanted to keep their children at the local Catholic school, Our Lady of Reconciliation. "This site is what we want and what we are prepared to pay for - a permanent place to live the way we always have," said Mrs O'Driscoll, who is from an old Co Cork travelling family. Her mother is 85 and gravely ill with pneumonia and her daughter Margaret, 30, is pregnant, so the need for a stable home is greater than ever.

Contrary to the popular idea that travellers prefer a nomadic lifestyle, Mrs O'Driscoll is typical of most traveller women, who prefer to have a base for most of the year. The consequences of a civilised social policy are palpable: litter in the bins provided, no camp fires, a few small statues of the Virgin Mary. The policy of inclusion beings wider benefits, such as Mrs O'Driscoll's welcome presence at a community campaign for new traffic lights last week.

But the O'Driscolls are lucky. Merseyside, which has always been a magnet for Irish travellers, has 71 unauthorised caravans as well as 113 authorised, and many of the former just park up on any piece of waste land they can find.

Eileen Doran's caravan is one of seven on the unlawful, litter-strewn Atlantic Park site, half a mile from Oil Street. She must pay £9 a night to get a shower for herself and her two children at a nearby leisure centre, £30 a bottle for Calor gas and £5 a night for an electricity generator.

She is moved on each time an eviction order is served on the camp. Police tend to arrive at 5am on such occasions and will sometimes escort a group outside the city.

"Making money's not so easy. I go around houses asking people for scrap, which I sell," Mrs Doran, 37, says. "But for the security and an end to all the hassle I'd pay £80 [a week] tomorrow if I could get a place up at Oil Street."

Comments