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. 

The UN Rapporteur’s mission to the UK, unpopular groups – and a round-up of more reviews

I suppose it’s not that surprising that some Conservative MPs have been spluttering over breakfast as they read that Raquel Rolnik, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, has been over here in the UK, examining whether we are providing adequate housing to particular groups – among them disabled people, homeless Roma, Gypsies and Travellers.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2411881/UN-officials-sent-check-bedroom-tax-houses-provide-adequate-standard-living.html

While MPs spilt their cornflakes I must admit I had a very pleasant (but frugal!) breakfast with Ms Rolnik and her team, along with Candy Sheridan, the Irish Traveller spokeswoman who rose to prominence challenging the eviction at Dale Farm – but who has spent months since patiently chronicling living conditions roadside there, as well as elsewhere, for her community, as well as that of Romani Gypsies. I was there because of my book, which came out just a month ago, which chronicles the parlous state of housing for the communities. Indeed, of the four families I followed in some depth, over the last few years, only one has secure accommodation. All four have experienced eviction within the last two years. This Wednesday I will attend Ms Rolnik’s press conference – not forgetting, of course, another important story she is covering – the bedroom tax – which is hitting disabled people, and their carers, harder than most. 

And a quick round-up of other news. A very welcome appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, along with afore-mentioned Candy Sheridan, and Romani Janie Codona, to talk about the book. You can listen to the interview with Jenni Murray here: 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038xx76

And big thanks to the great (poet and journalist) Damian le Bas for a typically thoughtful review of my book here, on the Travellers Times website, in which he writes: “Katharine Quarmby has done an excellent job in observing the current situation around Gypsies and Travellers on the ground. I grew up immersed in the actual grass roots politics of the British countryside, in a time when Parish Councils would still think nothing of posting flyers encouraging people to mobilise in order to get the Gypsies out of the village.

In truth, little has changed below the surface: lingering behind the media-savvy talk of the green belt, “inappropriate development” and poorly-chosen sites is the brute fact of communities who struggle to understand each other, and who therefore tend to snap back into a confrontational pose whenever the going gets tough. Quarmby acknowledges that Travellers pulling onto village greens and cricket pitches is bad news for everyone involved, and observations like this should let readers know that rather than being blindly pro-Traveller she, like all of us, genuinely wants to see the situation improve.

My only concern is that the very people who would most benefit from reading this book have already made up their minds, but where there’s the slightest trace of empathy across the garden fence or the barbed wire bounds of the Gypsy site, there always will be the hope of a better future.” I couldn’t have put it better myself – full review here. 

http://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/list.aspx?c=00619ef1-21e2-40aa-8d5e-f7c38586d32f&n=45b62be3-5976-4ce6-ae82-0f4f3606ce99&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Another very perceptive review here, by the wonderful social affairs journalist Fran Abrams here, in the New Statesman, in which she kindly calls the book an “an important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere. It underlines a truth – that a sense of “otherness” brings with it a dividend: it binds families and it binds communities.”

Read the full review here: http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/08/road-again

No Place to Call Home – book reviews

A round-up of reviews here. 

Ian Birrell, who also reviewed my last book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, posted a very thoughtful review in the Observer. He concluded that it was “An important book by an impressive journalist” although he did feel there was a bit too much reporting from Dale Farm which does form the spine of the narrative. But he did feel it painted a rightfully bleak picture of the bleak social exclusion in which so many Romanies and Travellers lives – although there’s lots of fun to be had as well in the communities! Read the full review here: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/26/no-place-home-quarmby-review

In the Guardian, Rose George said that the book was “forcefully written” and concludes: “As an exposure of the modern troubles of these unique, tight-knit communities of Travellers, it sets you travelling on the right road.” Interestingly, she felt that I was sentimental at times about the communities. I disagree, of course; I feel that I let their feelings show, as fellow human beings. But it’s a fair review: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/16/no-place-call-home-travellers?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

The Times review, by Fay Schlesinger, can only be seen behind the paywall, but to sum up, the reporter concurs that it is difficult to report from both sides of the conflict as one side inevitably feels hard done by. She runs through the history in the book and does a fair summary of the book, concluding that while I attempt to write a dispassionate history of both sides of the conflict, I end up on the side of the Travellers (you must judge that for yourselves of course!). If you have a subscription you can read it here: 

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/non-fiction/article3841137.ece

The review by the Herald, in Scotland, is a very thoughtful run-through of the main issues facing Gypsies, Roma and Travellers today and historically, concluding: “Even in households where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia would be unacceptable, slurs against Gypsies and Travellers are still allowed to propagate, which is why Quarmby’s book deserves to be given due prominence. Without greater under-standing there will be more, and bloodier, Dale Farms will follow.” It rightly, in my mind, states that racism against travelling people is the last accepted form of racism in this country. 

You can read the full review here: 

http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-poetry/reviews/katharine-quarmby-no-place-to-call-home-oneworld.21901309

No Place to Call Home – publication

No Place to Call Home will be published next Thursday – after pretty much 18 months work on it, and not much else, and some years before that, of course, spending time with the Romani Gypsy and Traveller communities (and, in later times, getting to know some of the newly arrived Roma as well). 

The Observer newspaper ran an extract from one of the chapters, about one of the most difficult conflicts around Gypsies and the settled community I have covered, in the Midlands last Sunday. You can read it here: 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/04/gypsies-belong-here-meriden-travellers

That particular conflict continues, with an ongoing inquiry, which the Communities Secretary himself has called in as a decision on which he will personally decide. 

Looking back over the last seven years, since I first visited a Traveller site, what have I learnt? I’ve met wonderful, friendly and warm-hearted people both from the Gypsy and Traveller communities and the settled community, and I’ve witnessed many officials, council workers, some politicians, campaigners and police officers trying to make things better for all concerned. I’ve also witnessed racism, hostility, and a wish to ratchet up conflict, rather than reach a solution that benefits everybody. 

I’d like to see a conflict resolution model applied to the vexed issue of accommodation for the communities, and for people without a home to be treated with more compassion. As one young disabled, homeless Gypsy told me recently, “We would die rather than move onto a cricket pitch, most of us would. You would have to be really desperate to do something like that.” We need better solutions than that to a homelessness problem that is benefitting nobody – I think everyone can at least agree on that. So maybe that’s the place to start from – because everyone, in the end, wants a place they can call home. 

 

 

 

Disability hate crime and Gypsies and Travellers

I was at the Home Office yesterday, attending a meeting to look at the implementation of the Equality Commission’s report on disability targeted harassment in the police service, in my role as one of the advisors to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency on this subject. I was really heartened to see both the commitment to change by senior police officers and their interest in the subject. We’ve come a long way from my first days investigating disability hate crime in 2007, when police officers would deny that disability hate crime existed. I can’t say much about the specific proposals but expect good work to come through on perpetrators, motivations and more linking up with other agencies. I am pushing for the Crown Prosecution Service Scrutiny Panels to start dip-sampling safeguarding cases – cases of so-called ‘vulnerable adult’ abuse that get lost in the safeguarding system and rarely reach the police. I believe that is where the missing disability hate crime cases are – and we need to find them and prosecute the perpetrators.

At the end of the meeting I had a chat to one of the Government’s senior advisors on hate crime. I wanted to know whether there was any data on crimes committed against Gypsies and Travellers. There isn’t really for several reasons. One is that until the 2011 Census Gypsies, Roma and Travellers couldn’t even define themselves as such – they had to tick the ‘white other’ box. I have to tick the mixed race ‘other’ box myself, as a half-Iranian, and it always irritates me but I understand we are a small-ish community. This isn’t true of Gypsies and Travellers- they are one of the biggest minority ethnic groups in the country – without even mentioning the ever-growing Roma community. And the British Crime Survey, which proved so useful to me when I was scoping the scale of disability hate crime (before it was being collected by police forces) is useless when it comes to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – because it visits households and not, apparently, sites. So their experience of crime is uncollected – and therefore little, or nothing is done about it. As a senior police officer told me a few years ago, if crime isn’t measured, it can’t become a target to be tackled. So crimes against these communities will remain the lowest of priorities.

We are half-way up the mountain on tackling disability hate crime. We are not even on the foothills when it comes to tackling crimes against these communities.

Looking back, looking forward

This is my first blog here and, given the time of year, I wanted to use it to reflect on a very full year – and to anticipate a little of what 2012 is likely to bring.

In June 2011 my first book for adults, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, was published (Portobello Press, 2011) and launched to a kindly audience of faces at the Department of Health. Many of my great friends from the disability movement were there – my ally and colleague on the Disability Hate Crime Network, Stephen Brookes, Mike Smith and others from the Equality Commission, Mandy Sanghera, who has done so much to combat honour-based violence, John Pring, whose own book, Longcare Survivors, was also published this year and my very patient family, who have accompanied me to many crime locations over the last few years, as I researched my book.

I went on to speak about the book at Stoke Newington Literary Festival (a very rainy day, and thanks to Richard Rieser, who drove all the way back from Cornwall to discuss Scapegoat with me there), then later at Hay and Edinburgh. I’ve been humbled by the generosity of the audiences too – so many brilliant disabled people, experts in their field, who have taken the time to come and talk to me at the festivals and conferences I’ve attended this year, to discuss particular themes of the book. I’ve discussed the troubling semantics of mate crime with Joanna Perry, now of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe but latterly at the Crown Prosecution Service, friendship theory with Ruth Bashall, who runs Disability Action Waltham Forest and other themes with Bert Massie (the former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, who set me on the right road for disability rights many years ago) and others, too numerous to mention.

Next year I’m already speaking at Bath, Bristol, Yeovil and Glasgow Festivals – but I’m also researching my next book, on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, both in the UK and abroad. Having reported on Dale Farm for the last five years, it was a bit of a shock to arrive there in August this year and find that activists had ensconsed themselves for Dale Farm’s last stand. Later, of course, I was there, reporting for the Economist, as the eviction finally happened, at great economic and social cost. That’s part of the story I intend to tell, – but also the story of Meriden, where a small number of Scottish Gypsies are living, and how their presence has split the village, and further afield, travelling to France and Eastern Europe to tell the wider story of Roma persecution.

I do feel very lucky, to have been given the opportunity to tell these stories of two different parts of our community, and even be paid, albeit not very much, to do so. It’s a privilege – and despite the recession, and the hardship it has brought us all, somehow, these stories deserve to be told, told well, and told truthfully.

I’ve thought long and hard about the question that this kind of story-telling poses me as a journalist and writer too – is it legitimate for me to do so, when I’m not a Gypsy, when my personal experience of disability is more limited than that of so many other people I have interviewed? Well, I wouldn’t be writing the stories if I didn’t feel that I could, or should. I think my skills as an investigative journalist can bring something else to the mix. I can’t (and won’t) tell my personal story – that’s for individual Gypsies and Travellers to do – but I can convince a wider audience that their individual tales have a context that needs explaining – in how society treats them, how the criminal justice system treats them, and what the legacy of history is. That’s legitimate, I think – my work is a small part of the collective narrative, complementing the many wonderful memoirs, written by Gypsies and Travellers, and their growing academic work on the issue. And if it serves to educate a somewhat jaded public, which has only seen Dale Farm and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding this year, I hope that’s worth doing.