Over this year, the tenth anniversary since the eviction of Dale Farm, I’m going to be reporting on how Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are treated in the UK. The first site I visited was Dale Farm, in Essex, well before the 2011 eviction. The veteran campaigner, Grattan Puxon, picked me up at a nearby station and drove me to meet Mary Ann McCarthy, a well-loved and respected resident at Dale Farm. I was given a warm welcome and visited again afterwards, and then often in the run-up to the eviction. I also visited other sites under threat of eviction, such as Meriden in the West Midlands, as well as horse fairs, religious meetings and protests. I got to know many families, and made friends. I also spoke to other people, like me, from the settled community.
One question that always puzzled me and that I got asked myself when my book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013) was published – why do so many homeowners get up in arms when a council or a family from the community wants to create a site? And what’s the effect of community after community saying, ‘not in my back yard’?
That’s what I have set out to investigate this year – how our planning system interlocks with that hostility and pushes nomadic families to the very margins of our society. I explore it in this article for Byline Times, in which I carried out a data investigation looking at where Travellers sites are located.
The results of the data analysis were shocking, but not surprising. Of the 242 sites that were mapped, 36% were within 50 metres of one or more A road, motorway, railway line, refuse/recycling, sewage or an industrial estate, canal or river; more than half (51%) were within 100 metres, 72% within 300 metres and 79% within 500 metres. Many sites were located near busy A roads and motorways (see chart below).
Given what we know about air quality and its effect on human health, I find this particularly shocking.
There are some very useful comments in the article, but I wanted to surface a couple of others here. Pauline Anderson, chair of the Traveller Movement, tells me: “Health outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers and life expectancy are the lowest in the country. Having to live in such dangerous and polluted areas because of a lack of safe stopping places and proper sites is making people ill and contributing to early death. Nomadism is not a lifestyle choice it is part of our heritage and ethnic identity which those who oppose us would like to eradicate. Proper site provision is the only answer and one which would give safety to those who are faced with nowhere to go but these squalid and unhealthy places.”
William Acker, a French lawyer, tells me that he conducted a similar investigation in France and found the same pattern. “I did the same research project as you in France, on 1,358 reception areas dedicated to Travellers. I found the same thing : ethnic relegation, state anti-Gypsyism and systemic pollution!”
The investigation was published in the week that Parliament was discussing plans to criminalise trespass, which will disproportionately affect nomadic communities. So when you read pieces about Travellers and trespass, take a look at some of the sites I mapped (two are below), near sewage stations, recycling areas and busy roads – and ask yourself how you would feel, trapped in such places. What are the pull and push factors here, and why is our planning system working to segregate whole communities in this way?