openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Gypsies and Travellers face “segregation by planning” in new housing developments

Travellers are being placed beside sewage works, busy railway lines and polluted industrial sites.

Katharine Quarmby
6 October 2020
A Traveller Lives Matter protest in Dublin.
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European Roma Rights Centre

New government funded housing developments are “not much different to an apartheid system”, Traveller organisations have warned.

One planned development of 1,100 homes near Hemel Hempstead in Greater London has placed its small Traveller site around a quarter of a mile from the rest of the community, openDemocracy has found. 

The Traveller site has no vehicle access to the main site. It has a separate single track lane with no footpath. The planned Traveller site is also next to the sewage pumping station for the whole development, and the busy West Coat Mainline railway line. 

The rest of the development is planned to include a school, health care centre and shops. But due to the distance between the developments, children from the Traveller site will most likely attend a different school. John Mawer, a local resident, says: “It literally sets in concrete exclusion and alienation for generations to come". 

Marc Willers QC, a barrister from Garden Court Chambers, who specialises in discrimination law and the rights of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, says of the Hemel Hempstead plan: “It seems to be an example of segregation by planning – keeping people from different ethnic groups and the less well off ‘out of sight and out of mind’. If that is what is going on here then it seems to me to be both offensive and discriminatory.”

The CEO of national charity the Traveller Movement, Yvonne MacNamara said: “This is typical behaviour of most local authorities in our experience. In this particular case, the local Traveller community are being treated like second-class citizens. Not much difference to an apartheid system – separate treatment, separate school, separate entrance… The proposed plan… only serves to exclude and alienate the community further. We would strongly urge the local authority to reconsider.”

Evidence from other areas reveals similar issues. 

In West Sussex, Travellers from a site near Lancing called Withy Patch are being relocated to make room for a new housing development. The organisation Families, Friends and Travellers (FFT), which has been supporting the residents, says that the relocation is likely to result in increased social exclusion as the site is being placed further away from settled residents – despite objections from people on the site and their neighbours living in bricks and mortar. 

The residents of Withy Patch are due to start moving from mid-November. They will likely pay more for their new plots, despite some of them being smaller and the new site being closer to Shoreham airport. Some of the plots will be situated metres away from a pumping station, adjacent to a septic tank which will hold the human waste of the people living on site – with mains drainage only being added once some of the housing is built. 

In addition, the site residents will have segregated access until the roads have been developed. A site resident told Friends, Families and Travellers that they had also asked for a zebra crossing to a local country park, but that this would not be considered while the only people living there are Travellers. The residents say they are disappointed with the development overall, though they feel lucky that settled residents have been supportive and have lobbied for them to be treated better. 

There is widespread frustration that there is so little progress on the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites, with an estimated 3000 families from the communities lacking homes. Despite the fact that the government has made £4.7bn available under its affordable homes programme, not a single local authority has yet used this funding to build Traveller sites. 

In 2015 the government changed the definition of ‘Traveller’ for planning purposes, meaning that local authorities are required to provide fewer pitches. Only 12% of local authorities in South East England have identified sites for Travellers over the next five years, according to research this year by Friends, Families and Travellers, a worsening situation.

A 2016 report by professor Margaret Greenfields of Buckinghamshire New University found that many Traveller sites provided by local authorities were located away from other residential developments and near busy roads and heavy industry. A 2003 report for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister found that 70% of sites were on the fringes of towns and villages, with half of all sites having environmental problems, including being near major roads, rubbish tips, sewage works and industry. 

The communities are treated similarly across Europe. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency published a report last month surveying around 8,500 families from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities across six countries, including the UK. One in five respondents in the UK reported pollution and other environmental problems in their local area, with the same proportion reporting  they had no access to tap water or electricity on their halting sites.  

Professor Greenfields says: “This is exclusion and marginalisation by pushing Gypsies and Travellers to the most poorly serviced localities where their physical and mental health will suffer. It is shocking if unsurprising that this is continuing with new developments.” She is concerned that the Hemel Hempstead plan may lead to children from the Traveller site going to a different school than their peers. [It] would be very bad for social cohesion.” 

Josephine O’Driscoll, the CEO of Hertfordshire’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller charity Gate Herts, says that while communities may want enough space to keep horses nearby, or have open fires safely, they aren’t looking for segregation. She says: “We want to use the same schools as other children and want to integrate, but not assimilate”. She describes a Catch-22 situation, with the government wanting to criminalise trespass while there isn’t provision for people to live.

Dacorum borough council confirmed the Hemel Hempstead site would not have “vehicular access to the wider site”, but that there would be pedestrian and cycle links to the wider development. Its vehicle access, Chaulden Lane would be “modified through the creation of passing places,” the council said. The statement added that the sewage pumping station location was “chosen due to topography and it will be designed and constructed to meet the required standards for such infrastructure when considering proximity to adjacent dwellings. It is located close to both proposed and existing homes, as well as the Gypsy and Traveller site.” 

Hertfordshire county council, which is responsible for education, did not deny that Traveller children could end up attending separate schools from children in the main housing development. 

West Sussex council said of the Withy Patch relocation that “extensive consultation” had been carried out with residents from the site. It did not, however, deny rent rises, nor that the relocation was near to a septic tank or airport. A spokesperson said: “The county council has maintained regular direct contact with the residents situated on the current site and consulted thoroughly on the plans and discussed any changes. Residents engaged positively in this process and told us they found it helpful. The developers have also held regular meetings with the residents to make sure they have been involved with the development.” 

Adur district council, which is responsible for the area’s local plans, added the site was at flood risk and therefore the council had “sought to ensure a safer site raised above any flood risk and enlarged by four pitches”. 

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