Gypsy and traveller families ‘hounded out’ of areas in act of ‘social cleansing’ as councils impose sweeping bans

Nomadic groups persistently moved on as surge in ‘criminalising’ injunctions ban unauthorised encampments across entire towns despite ‘chronic shortage’ of permitted sites

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 18 November 2018 00:58
Cuts to local authority funding, as well as an ‘increasingly hostile’ attitude towards travelling communities, are said to have led to an increasing number of councils seeking injunction orders over the past year
Cuts to local authority funding, as well as an ‘increasingly hostile’ attitude towards travelling communities, are said to have led to an increasing number of councils seeking injunction orders over the past year

Gypsies and travellers are being “hounded out” of parts of England as a growing number of local authorities impose sweeping bans to prevent them from settling on their land, in what has been described as a form of social cleansing.

Families are being constantly ordered to move on, leading to mental health issues and disruption to children’s development, as a string of councils obtain wide high court injunction orders ban unauthorised encampments across entire towns.

Lawyers, MPs and charities accused ministers of “ratcheting up” action against travellers on unauthorised sites without ensuring there was enough supply to address the “chronic shortage” of authorised encampments across the country.

Cuts to local authority funding, as well as an “increasingly hostile” attitude towards travelling communities, have led to an increasing number of councils seeking injunction orders over the past year, campaigners said.

Injunctions have been obtained by 22 councils since the first one was granted by Harlow Council in Essex in 2015, with several other local authorities currently pursuing them in the courts.

The latest government figures show there were 22,946 traveller caravans in England in January 2018, of which 87 per cent were on authorised land and 13 per cent on unauthorised land.

The number of caravans on unauthorised land increased by 2 per cent in the year to January 2018, but the proportion of these that are “not tolerated”, meaning either a planning enforcement notice has been served or an injunction has been sought, rose more sharply, by 20 per cent, from 1,402 to 1,679.

Michelle Gavin, projects manager at support organisation Friends, Families and Travellers, said the use of injunction orders was ”insidious” and that the biggest issue was the lack of site provision nationally.

“It was successful in Harlow, because people left the area, but then of course it goes onto the next county and the next county,” she said.

“The reason people are facing these blanket ban injunctions is because there are no new sites being built. The majority of people affected by these injunctions have nowhere to live, nowhere authorised on which to encamp, because there’s a chronic shortage across the country.

“With no sites being built and children being born with emerging need, you are literally waiting for people to die to be able to access any site provision.”

The injunction orders are usually against “persons unknown”, meaning anyone found to occupy the land may be imprisoned, fined or have their property seized – which lawyers described as “inhumane”.

In an open letter earlier this month to Lord Bourne, the minister responsible for faith issues, 27 MPs, lawyers and charities, including co-leader of the Green Party Sian Berry, urged the government to centrally take control of the situation and ensure provision of permanent and transit pitches.

The letter, written by Brigitta Balogh, who is set to become Britain’s first Roma barrister, described the injunctions as a “deliberate act to force the community to settle ... and renounce its nomadic heritage and leave its traditions behind, potentially breaching Human Rights legislation”.

Marc Willers, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers who represents gypsies affected by the wide injunctions, said the bans were leading to overcrowding on sites, as well as a deterioration in mental and physical health of traveller communities.

“When they turn up wherever these injunctions have been granted, unbeknownst to them, they will be hit with it and told you can’t park anywhere in this borough or within this area, so they’ve got to move on,” he said.

“The problem is, if the next borough has the same injunction in place, they then have to move again, and there’s nowhere else for them to go. They’re being driven into the sea.

“The sites which are available and do have planning permission are getting more and more overcrowded, people are doubling up – there will be a pitch with permission for one caravan, and there will be two squeezed onto it.

“It creates a lot of anxiety and can lead to mental health issues being driven around constantly. And not only do you not get kids into school and families to access appropriate medical healthcare – for sometimes chronic and acute conditions – you don’t get the interaction and the integration which you’d get with a settled site.”

Mr Willers said the injunction orders were rarely defended due to the broad definition of “persons unknown”, and fear among nomadic communities of coming forward to challenge them.

He added: “Local authorities think it’s a swift and easy way of ensuring that they can move gypsies and travellers on, and they don’t need to go through a process of assessing the needs of individual families. Our argument against that is that this is inhumane.

“It’s a perfect storm for gypsies and travellers, and in the meantime some families are being moved from one borough to another, so those which are more humane in their treatment of gypsies and travellers tend to end up with more.”

Helen Jones, chief executive of Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange, said the injunctions meant all gypsies and travellers were being criminalised for the behaviour of a minority.

“It’s to control the behaviour of a very small number of people who are doing industrial fly-tipping and antisocial behaviour. We don’t deal with the criminal behaviour but we punish them all,” she said.

“When the first and only face you see from the state is telling you to shift it’s no wonder these groups start to feel really excluded. It’s pushed people out and made them very invisible, and our politicians are taking a stance of protecting local voters from these ‘hoards’.

“It is social cleansing. It is driving certain groups out of areas and nomadism is a way of life. It turns an unauthorised encampment into a criminal offence – when all of that is an expression of unmet need.”

Kate Green, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, accused ministers of creating a “hostile policy” for nomadic groups by “ratcheting up” enforcement against travellers on unauthorised sites “without doing much to address the supply side”.

“If you want to ratchet up enforcement, you need to make sure people have access to legitimate sites, and we’re saying there’s a vast undersupply of such sites,” she said.

“There’s an issue with funding. Local authority budgets are very squeezed, and that includes funding they could use to provide legitimate sites. The government’s response has been to talk up the enforcement side of the equation without doing very much to address the supply side.

“We’ve had gypsy and Irish traveller families in this country for hundreds of years. It’s important that their needs are properly considered in public policy and adequately met. The tensions that exist are being exacerbated by failure of government to supply the sites that would enable them to live peacefully side by side.”

A government review into the law and powers to deal with unauthorised caravan sites is to be published in the coming months, which ministers said would emphasise its commitment to “fair and equal treatment of all communities … while balancing this with the interests of settled communities”.

Communities minister Lord Bourne said: “Gypsy, Roma and traveller groups are a valued part of our society, but we also know they are vulnerable and the race disparity audit revealed some difficult truths.

“We launched a new community-based fund to support them earlier this year which will support projects around the country that address some of the inequalities they face.

“While the number of caravans in the country remains broadly the same, it is pleasing to see more people are on authorised encampments, with more travellers setting up through appropriate planning permissions.”

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