Planning environmental injustice – my findings

I’ve spent much of the last year digging into how the UK planning system seems to embed racism and segregation, placing authorised Traveller sites in unhealthy, isolated and hazardous places, separated from settled communities and in areas that in some cases had been identified by local authorities as dangerous.

I want to thank the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Ideas and Pioneers Fund for part-funding my research. The funding gave me time to uncover the complex and racialised processes that have resulted in Travellers being placed in places others are not expected to live – near sewage, refuse, industry, motorways – and what is it like to live in those places. This work has stemmed out of years of reporting with and about Britain’s nomadic communities, from my first visit to the then largest Traveller site in Europe, Dale Farm, in 2006, for The Economist right through to when 86 families were evicted in 2011, visiting other flash points such as Meriden, in the West Midlands, as well as more celebratory articles on religion and the arts, and culminating in my book, No Place to Call Home, published by OneWorld, in 2013.

This recent work has now been published in different outlets; thank you to all of them for refusing to ignore what should be as a UK housing scandal, but sadly isn’t.

PUBLICATIONS

First up, thank you to openDemocracy for publishing the kick-off piece, exploring the current planning system: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/gypsies-and-travellers-face-segregation-by-planning-in-new-housing-developments/

I then started to map segregation, with the next investigation of site location in England published by Byline Times: https://bylinetimes.com/2021/05/24/systemic-racism-within-a-rigged-system-new-investigation-reveals-how-travellers-sites-are-routinely-placed-in-risky-locations/

Then, more recently, just as the government criminalised trespass in the UK, I published three linked articles. First up, my long-read for Al Jazeera, looking at the environmental issues arising from poor location of sites: https://aljazeera.com/features/2022/6/29/rats-for-neighbours-smells-like-death-life-for-uks-travellers.

I also worked with the community news organisation, Travellers Times, focussing on the current issues with the planning system: https://travellerstimes.org.uk/features/dumped-sewage-how-so-many-traveller-sites-ended-hazardous-and-isolated-places.

I then published an investigation with The National Wales, focussing on the dire state of many sites in Wales. https://www.thenational.wales/news/20249600.scandal-authorised-gypsy-roma-traveller-sites-wales/

To round off this reporting phase, I then worked with openDemocracy to look at the location of and facilities on transit sites – where Travellers now are forced to stay if they are travelling for work or leisure, due to the government criminalising trespass. I wrote: “Two-thirds of the 60 short-term ‘transit’ sites in England – and just over half of the country’s 242 permanent sites – are within 100m of one or more…[environmental] hazards. Yet the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which came into force in England and Wales at the end of June, forces GRT people into these sites by criminalising trespass and strengthening police powers against unauthorised roadside camps. For Travelling communities, this means that their homes and belongings can be seized, and those convicted fined or jailed.”

Thank you to all the residents who talked to me and who were so hospitable and generous with their time, to the local and national organisations who explained issues and supported, including Gate Herts, Leeds Gate, London Gypsies and Travellers, Travelling Ahead and Gypsies and Travellers Wales, as well as national organisations, the Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers and Moving for Change. Also to academics and experts, including Ryan Powell, Margaret Greenfields, Bill Forrester, Candy Sheridan, Stuart Carruthers, Adrian Jones and Jo Richardson.

RESEARCH FINDINGS

Lastly, here’s a summary of my general research findings. If you cite it, please do credit myself and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Around a quarter of the 300,000 UK Gypsy Traveller community live on Traveller sites. I examined three planning decisions in depth and around 20 for larger context, using desk-based methods. I also analysed local and national media coverage of site planning and submitted Freedom of Information requests (FOIs) to understand more about the planning history of sites, as well as  Environmental Information Requests (EIRs) to uncover environmental complaints and therefore conditions in and around sites in England, Scotland and Wales. I also carried out interviews with academics, policy makers,  representatives of community-led Traveller organisations and site residents. I visited three sites (one in development) and asked residents in two about environmental conditions in and around the sites and what they knew about the planning and general history of the site where they lived. All sites were local authority authorised and managed.

I also sent both FOIs and EIRs to just under 20 sites in England, Scotland and Wales. 

The planning FOI question was as follows, with specific information about when each site was built and/or refurbished, but otherwise the same for each site. 

I am doing a research project looking at the location of Traveller sites through England, Scotland and Wales and one of the sites I have identified is in xxx – postcode and address provided. 

If the scope of the request is too wide, I am happy to work with you.

The [name of site] was opened in x and refurbished in y [where that was the case]. 

I would like to see any debates or correspondence, either external or internal about the establishment of the site and subsequent works, as well as correspondence with local MPs and local councillors at the time the site was built.

I also sent an Environmental Information Regulation request to just over 20 sites in England, Scotland and Wales. Again, I asked a broadly similar question each time, although if I had specific information about a particular issue nearby, such as sewage, flooding or mine shafts, I did ask for additional information. 

I would like to know whether any residents of the sites have raised environmental concerns about the location of the site in which they live. This could include road noise, being sited near sewage works, flooding, vermin. Also, whether they have raised general environmental concerns or health concerns arising from the environment, including accidents or hospitalisation they believe is linked to the location of the site in which they reside.

I had to ask for internal reviews for a small number of FOIs/EIRs in order to obtain responses. 

This study is particularly timely as the Government has now criminalised roadside living and trespass, as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Removing the ability of Travellers to camp roadside turns the spotlight firmly back to the conditions on and availability of official local authority permanent and transit sites.

Main Findings 

Councils – planning and health officials in particular – were well aware that the sites were placed in unpleasant and sometimes hazardous places. Objections – often couched in overtly racist tones – from local residents who did not want Travellers near the houses and neighbourhoods reduced the options available for site placement leaving Traveller communities with little choice but to accept poor locations. Councillors were often concerned with retaining their seat and so bowed to pressure, meaning that sites were placed in areas that would not be considered for bricks and mortar housing. 

  • Traveller sites were placed by council tips and recycling centres; sewage stations; busy road and railway lines; industrial estates; cemeteries and slaughterhouses. 
  • This isn’t just a historic planning legacy, as new sites which have recently been developed show that planning officers are still facing largely the same objections.
  • As a result of such objections, sites that were planned and established long ago, which councils and residents alike agreed are in unpleasant or dangerous places prove difficult to relocate to more suitable locations.
  • Some sites have been slated for closure for years, without a new site having been found, meaning that residents live in a planning limbo, waiting to be moved. 
  • This relocation limbo means that the fabric of the site deteriorates as the council does not want to spend too much money on improving a site that they have – on paper at least – said should be closed. 
  • Due to such delay, this often means that between three to four generations of some families have lived and continue to live on sites that are in dangerous and unpleasant places.
  • My research also found that over time site conditions had worsened as many sites were located in or near industrial areas that had expanded over time. 
  • The study revealed the terrible living conditions on sites that include vermin flies, dust, odour and noise. According to one site resident ‘ The main problem is we are living in an industrial area. And it’s the air quality, the smell, the dust and the sound…the recycling centre is just behind us – and the sound, the noise is a problem…and we also have a big problem with rats’. Another site resident said the conditions were so bad that,  ‘they wouldn’t expect anyone but a Traveller to live here”. 
  • The FOIs and EIRS found the most common complaints from site residents to local authorities were: 
  • Problems with vermin (mainly large rats)
  • Problems with insects (flies, wasps and flying ants)
  • Foul odours from nearby sewage stations/other industrial processes, including slaughterhouses
  • Fly-tipping nearby 
  • Noise from industrial processes – often going into the night or in the early morning
  • Busy traffic
  • Dust in the air from busy traffic/rail/industrial processes
  • Vibration from industrial processes and heavy lorries
  • Site visits and interviews revealed the main difficulties experienced by residents were: 
  • Poor maintenance of buildings onsite
  • Vermin at times over-running sites
  • Mould in utility blocks
  • Accidents due to poor maintenance of hard standing etc, with ‘slabs’ cracking due to perceived vibration from industrial processes
  • Lack of access to green space and play areas

Conclusion

While policy has changed on paper, and rhetoric has to some extent been toned down, the same patterns of segregation by planning exist in many areas. 

This report clearly demonstrates a pattern – past and present – in the planning processes for Gypsy and Traveller sites. 

The unholy trinity of political expediency, a planning system in hock to elected officials and objections by local settled people unites to make it more likely that nomadic community members, often local people themselves, are housed in hazardous or unpleasant places. Sites have been literally dumped by sewage stations, tips, busy roads and railways and this is not an accident. It is a national pattern that demonstrates the racism faced by Britain’s nomadic communities. Nowhere is Cantle’s (2001) idea of ‘parallel lives’ more clear where sites are hidden, isolated and separated from settled communities. The planning system facilitates marginalisation and exclusion over generations. Fifty years after the Caravan Sites Act was passed, sites are still being put in ‘hole and corner’ places, where no other community would be asked to live. 

The research findings suggest a number of changes are needed to ensure that sites are placed in locations that offer the possibility of integration into wider communities and safer environments. This starts with the planning system where racism and local resistance have ensured that sites are on the margins of settled areas and in places where no other groups are expected to live. 

Environmental racism, location of Traveller sites and human rights – my new investigation

Just a few weeks ago I was told that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation had awarded me a grant, through its Ideas and Pioneers Fund, to look at environmental injustice around the location of Traveller sites. I am hugely grateful to the Foundation for the grant.

Environmental injustice, also known as environmental racism where it applies to ethnic minority communities, is the effect of discrimination on the environment where communities live, which can have devastating mental and physical health effects. There’s an interesting paper in the medical journal, The Lancet, here, explaining it in greater depth. The reason I have widened out the concept to environmental injustice is that it can also apply to other marginalised groups, such as care leavers, women living in refuges and refugees – all of whom can also be housed in temporary or unsatisfactory housing.

The first stage to the work I have done looking at the effect of environmental injustice on nomadic or site-dwelling Gypsy and Traveller community members was to map all public (local authority or socially rented) Traveller sites in England, which I did in May this year, culminating in an investigation for Byline Times.

Typical site mapping for the first stage of the project, showing a site sandwiched between a railway line and busy road

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation planning project

For this new project, I’m hoping to look at sites that chart the history of planning since the passing of the Caravan Sites Act, which was implemented in 1970. This will include some recent sites, as well as some older ones.

I have now mapped Wales and Scotland as well, with similar findings to those in England. I am now starting to identify the sites to visit and research.


I will also do some more work on the health effects – both mental and physical – of living in or near dangerous and unpleasant places like sewage stations, rubbish tips and roads as well. The communities have lower levels of life expectancy, as well as higher levels of certain conditions, including gastro-intestinal, respiratory and disability in general, as well as higher levels of childhood accidents.


I’m involving local and national Gypsy, Roma and Traveller organisations in the work and aim to report parts of the work as I continue with the project. I will be saying a lot more about this going forward but the principle underpinning the work is the disability movement’s mantra, nothing about us, without us.

I hope this research project with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation will show how the planning system – which could be described as a machine – has levers which can embed racist or environmentally unjust practices, leading to health effects on a marginalised community. I hope I can demonstrate what the levers are and what lies behind them – a widespread hostility to Traveller sites, underpinned by both prejudice and a fear about house prices. How best can communities then be empowered to put a spanner in that machine and force better and more transparent practice in the future?