Local councils are letting Gypsies down

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The Independent Online

A new and ugly campaign of vilification against Britain's Gypsies has been prompted by a circular sent out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This instructed local authorities to "take account of travellers' needs" in their local housing plans. All too predictably, it was seized upon by certain sections of the media as evidence that the Government has a "pro-Gypsy" agenda. Newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Mail have presented an entirely bogus image of Middle England being overrun with illegal encampments, and repeated vile slurs about the Gypsy way of life.

A new and ugly campaign of vilification against Britain's Gypsies has been prompted by a circular sent out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This instructed local authorities to "take account of travellers' needs" in their local housing plans. All too predictably, it was seized upon by certain sections of the media as evidence that the Government has a "pro-Gypsy" agenda. Newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Mail have presented an entirely bogus image of Middle England being overrun with illegal encampments, and repeated vile slurs about the Gypsy way of life.

The truth is that, over the past 60 years, the number of stopping places for travellers has shrunk dramatically as open commons have been swallowed up by housing. The 1968 Caravan Sites Act improved matters for a time by ordering local councils to set aside land for travellers. But in 1994, the Tory government relieved local authorities of this obligation. The result is that there are now only 324 official council camps. It is estimated that some 3,500 travellers simply have nowhere to go.

The Government's circular is a welcome, if belated, recognition of that reality. But it should go further and reinstate the obligation of all local councils to provide authorised campsites for travellers. Until sufficient land is made available, illegal encampments will inevitably continue to spring up.

Such a move would not, of course, solve the problem overnight. Councils will always be tempted not to do what is required of them if there is likely to be resistance from local residents. If there is one thing guaranteed to provoke a popular uproar, it is the prospect of a Gypsy camp opening up down the road. To make it work, the Government would have to force local authorities to respect their obligations.

It is important to remember that the majority of travellers live on authorised sites and draw no complaints from the wider community. The real victims of an itinerant lifestyle are Gypsies themselves. Their children often miss immunisations, and Gypsy women go without antenatal care.

The Government has a solution at its fingertips that would improve life for both the Gypsy community and the residents of villages throughout Britain. It must not allow itself to be intimidated out of doing the sensible thing by hateful campaigns run by the right-wing press.

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