Any attempt to subsume diverse groups under one label is going to be fraught with tension – and this is certainly true in terms of the word “Traveller”. Used as an umbrella term, “Traveller” encompasses an array of people and groups, among them Romani Gypsies, Roma and Irish Travellers living in the UK.
The launch of the Decade of Inclusion in 2005 established an opportunity to promote the health and well-being of all Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people living across Europe. It required all member states to adopt a clear and proactive approach to ensure that these communities are not excluded from society.
Now that the decade is coming to a close, it’s hard to find any improvement in the lives of the UK’s Gypsy and Traveller communities. In fact, recent actions by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) seem to indicate things are getting worse.
The DCLG has introduced new planning rules which directly affect the health and well-being of Gypsy and Traveller people. According to the housing minister, Brandon Lewis, these are essential to address the “blight” and “misery” caused by unauthorised sites and ensure that planning rules “apply fairly to every community”.
Traveller Movement argues that by making it harder for Gypsies and Travellers to obtain planning permission, the UK government is failing to meaningfully recognise the ethnic minority status of Gypsy and Traveller people in the planning system.
What’s more, with a new three-point “clarification” to the definition of the words “Gypsy” and “Traveller”, the DCLG guidance could be used to redefine who Gypsies and Travellers are.
Gypsies and Travellers have long been recognised as minority ethnic groups under race relations legislation, as well as under the EU’s definition of the word “Roma”. But for the purposes of planning, the DCLG now suggests that a Gypsy or Traveller person can only be a Gypsy or a Traveller if they “travel”.
According to this policy, if people stop travelling (to stay in education, or because of limited employment or ill health), they cease to be a Gypsy or a Traveller altogether. That means they’re no longer eligible to apply for planning permission to build, develop and potentially reside on a site.
Travellers already suffer from a serious shortage of sites, and the new guidance will make things even harder for them. Many will be forced to live on the roadside, and there could also be an increasing number of those unauthorised sites which Lewis has publicly condemned.
Living on an unauthorised campsite is far from ideal and carries a heavy weight of suffering and disadvantage. An understandable cause for community tension, unauthorised sites can be difficult for some members of the general public to tolerate and accept. Travellers themselves contend daily with the risk of criminalisation and eviction, as well as limited access to basic services such as running water or sanitation.
Yet still, as a number of studies have shown, many Gypsy and Traveller families continue to live and suffer on unauthorised camps because of a shortage of authorised sites. Whether the available sites are owned and operated by local authorities or housing associations or privately owned and developed by Gypsy and Traveller families, there is simply not enough provision to suit demand.
When planning permission for campsite development has been proposed in the past, applications have often been refused. Even where Gypsies and Travellers own the land, permission to develop it can be extremely difficult to secure.
What’s often overlooked is that Gypsies and Travellers living on local authority or housing association sites are responsible for the exact same costs as other people living in local authorities or housing association housing. The main difference is that if a Gypsy and Traveller family vacates their pitch for anywhere between two and 12 weeks, even as part of a nomadic way of life, they can be evicted. And then, forced to rely on unauthorised camps, they can be prosecuted and criminalised under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
More and more Gypsies and Travellers are being forced to remain in one location to avoid prosecution and maintain tenancy agreements, while planning permission to develop their own private land is becoming more and more difficult to obtain. This is because the DCLG now requires these people to prove they are genuine Gypsies or Travellers by way of their nomadic habit of life. It seems a culture, heritage, language and tradition that can be traced back through history is no longer enough to constitute a legally recognised ethnicity.
Now that Gypsies and Travellers have to provide “evidence” that they are Gypsies and Travellers, we might well ask whether other “minority” groups will be expected to prove their minority status to secure basic rights in the future.
That housing and planning law is now being used to determine and validate the ethnicity of a group of people who have been living and travelling around the UK since the 16th Century seriously undermines any progress that was made during the Decade of Inclusion. And more than that, it calls into question the UK government’s ability to effectively apply the EU’s human rights policies in general.