Leading Article: Bumpy road for our travellers

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FOR HUNDREDS of years there has been tension between people who prefer to live a nomadic life and most of us. Farmers and city dwellers have felt ill at ease with wandering peoples, who have been seen as a threat to property. But gypsies traditionally also have been valued for their rich culture, fairs and particular skills. The strangeness of these people provokes a mixed reaction of curiosity, fear and hatred.

The summer solstice and the frustration of those barred from Stonehenge once more highlights the tension. New age travellers have swelled Britain's nomadic ranks so that about 40,000 people now wander the country in about 12,500 caravans and assorted vehicles. New age travellers are developing a culture characterised by anti-materialism, craftwork, music and a passion for freedom and open spaces. It is a way of life that stands in opposition to mainstream British culture in the Nineties.

As most people in cities struggle to make ends meet, pay off mortgages, remain respectable and hold down jobs, they watch long-haired, dirty travellers enjoying summer festivals, living off social security and descending on some poor farmer's land in their thousands. They see travellers as scroungers with no respect for property, who foul and litter their environment, play loud music and jam the roads. Farmers are aghast as travellers' dogs harass their sheep and caravans take over pasture land.

Meanwhile, travellers look at settled people as living miserable, narrow, confined lives, hemmed in by conformity and obsessed with ownership. Many of the newest recruits to the road have become disillusioned with lives in stressful inner cities where housing is poor, jobs are non-existent or poorly paid, and families are fractured. Among fellow travellers they claim to find communities that are safe for their children and supportive to them. They reject claims that their lives are lawless and say their communities are largely peaceful. Instead they see themselves as living by rules and principles that are different to those of the rest of society and difficult to accommodate when common land no longer really exists. Not surprisingly, the relationship between the nomadic and settled cultures is full of anger and rejection.

In the conflict between these peoples, the law has rightly leaned towards the propertied, but it was never so severe or applied so strictly as to make the nomadic life impossible. Governments acted as referees, making sure that rights on all sides were respected. That is about to change. The travelling life is to be criminalised, indeed effectively outlawed. Planned legislation will abolish the duty on local authorities to provide adequate sites, while making it a criminal offence to camp on land without permission. Police powers to halt and evict travellers and break up even small convoys will be increased.

Ministers have made clear that their intention is to push nomadic people - both new age travellers and gypsies - into abandoning their way of life in favour of living in houses. Their appeal to popular antagonism against travellers and to the concerns of shire Tories will bring about an eradication of a part of British life judged untidy and messy. Increasingly, travellers will find themselves in prison, or moved on with nowhere to go but towards another conflict with the police. Those who seek permanent housing cannot expect special financial help. They will join the queue with everyone else.

Britain is surely not such a pressured society that it cannot accommodate other ways of life, particularly such a radical culture as that of travellers. What is required is a finely balanced and healthy tension between the cultures, with government as referee, to ensure that rights are respected and not trampled. Wiping out the traveller culture would be an act of small minds.