Dear Mr Raab,
I can’t decide if it’s quite apt or ironic that I write this on the 8th April – International Romani Day – a day that we are supposed to celebrate our culture and raise awareness of the issues that face us, because some feel there is little to celebrate and after 500+ years of oppression in the UK, many issues still face us .. and these have only been added to after your recent comments and actions. I do of course refer to your recent consultation regarding unauthorized encampments.
I find it more than a little sad that all you appear to have taken away from the Commons debate regarding Gypsies & Travellers and local communities that took place on the 9th October 2017, was “concerns about the issue of unauthorized development and encampments”. While the discussion descended into negativity, there were a few voices or reason who at least appeared to understand some of our plight; Namely MP’s Laura Pidcock, Dr Paul Williams, Kate Green and David Linden among others. Were they listened too? It would appear not.
Being the Minister for Housing, my opinion (shared by many others in the Gypsy and Traveller community) is that you appear to be going about your job in a rather backwards fashion. A conversation or consultation about unauthorized encampments should have begun with a discussion about legal encampments and about the numbers thereof. We’ll forget for a second about the location of these sites, which tend to be hidden away in highly industrial areas where no one would wish to live given the choice.
Would you agree that currently, as things stand, there are not enough legal sites and pitches? I’m sure you would because it’s widely accepted that there are not. The first question you should therefore be asking is why are there not enough legal sites and pitches? This is quite simple to answer; because there is currently no statutory duty on local authorities to provide sites, only a “recommendation” that they do so. With local authority budgets increasingly under strain from Government cuts, it makes sense that only the services they are legally obliged to provide will be provided, while everything else will move to the bottom of the list of things to do.
The Government needs to take some responsibility for it’s actions, starting with it’s own “Planning Policy for Traveller sites” effectively passing the onus of the creation of new sites & pitches to the LA’s. This was the wrong move in my opinion and the Government should be looking to retake ownership of the issue by making it a legal requirement that LA’s provide the required number of sites and pitches.
Another point of contention which needs addressing sooner rather than later is the Governments Traveller Caravan Count whose numbers and statistics are so often referred to by yourself and others. By the Governments own admission, the numbers and information supplied are done so on a purely voluntary basis by the LA’s and the numbers aren’t accurate and the information is sadly lacking. If the Government does not have knowledge on the current state and number of legally accessible sites, it should not be talking about increasing eviction powers on illegal sites. Why? Because if you are looking to potentially increase eviction powers, at the end of the day, if a legal site isn’t available or full, where are the evicted Gypsies & Travellers going to go? Probably to another illegal site, more than likely under the same LA’s jurisdiction and because you are looking to effectively speed up evictions, this has the potential to cost LA’s (read: the tax payer) more money, increasing the general populations negativity towards us. This is obviously not a desirable outcome.
When will common sense prevail? When will you look at the real issue of the number of legal site & pitch provisions available? When will you and the Government actually involve Gypsy & Traveller groups officially in your various discussions and consultations? When will anyone actually listen to us and treat us with the respect that we deserve …
Gary Stanley – Romany Historian & Activist.
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