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Gypsies, travellers and local government


My first political act, at the age of 14, was to write a letter to the local newspaper about my council’s decision not to provide a gypsy site.

It was the International Year of Human Rights and I was incensed with all the passion of a teenager newly awakened to the ways of the world - largely discovered through the civics class we all had to take at school.

Decades on, I look at the vexed question of the relations between local government and gypsies from the perspective of having been a councillor myself. This was in an area with a large number of gypsies - some came and went, some lived in houses, some were on legally-developed sites, some were on plots where planning permission had not been given.

Those who visited did so in differing patterns: using the site the council provided, camping temporarily in lay-bys, coming in large groups to industrial estates. Some were tidy, some left huge piles of rubbish to be cleared at the taxpayers’ expense.

One thing they shared in common was that they were part of the place historically, then and now. And this is the case in many areas. So there are councils that have taken their responsibilities seriously - employed traveller education workers, liaison officers, taken a strategic view of how many sites are needed and how needs can be met. Others have done less.

With the conflict at Dale Farm the focus is on planning but widens out to many other issues. At a time when government is proposing changes to our planning laws, we should use the opportunity to consider how those might take account of the needs of our complex communities.

Planning can be complicated, bureaucratic and hard-to-understand. Easy then to go on the side of greater simplicity. But there is a balance to be struck - for accessibility and transparency and also for legal frameworks to reflect the needs of differing cultures, of people from settled and mobile groups.

Policies of that kind, whether at national or local level, cannot be achieved without understanding that comes from dialogue, from hearing different voices, from including and engaging with people in both the minority and majority groups.

The government’s consultation earlier this year on Planning for Traveller Sites took the localism approach ditching top-down targets in favour of local decision-making. But, as we have seen, councils take widely differing actions on travellers and gypsies when there is no statutory imperative.

Localism may be about what is right locally but human rights are about what is right more universally.

Irene MacDonald is a former leader of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk BC


Readers' comments (2)

  • If localism is to work, it has to apply to all members of local communities, not just to those who have a voice (or worse, those who are allowed to have a voice by local gatekeepers). The historical problem for Gypsies and Travellers is the denial that they are part of the local population, and the problem with localism as we are seeing it that it is in danger of reinforcing this exclusion.
    Thanks Irene for your balanced and informed view in this post.

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  • The arguments for and against the public purse providing gypsy sites for travellers, which incidentally I think they should, and charge market rents if the demand is there, will rumble on and on!
    But the one thing nobody should condone is anyone breaking the law by living on land without planning permission!
    I guarantee that I would not get away with setting up home on some agricultural land that I had bought, why should anyone else?
    Gypsies are subject to the same laws as anyone else, unless of course the coalition decides we can all develop any land we like, as long as we prove that our house is sustainable! I can do that!

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