The choice for Travellers: live by the sewage works or risk arrest
Many council ‘transit’ sites are unsuitable, putting Travellers at risk of prosecution under new trespass law
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities are being forced to live on contaminated land, by motorways and near sewage works or risk arrest, an alarming investigation for openDemocracy has found.
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 such 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.
A number of short-stay transit sites are currently working their way through local councils’ planning departments. The extra sites are supposed to give GRT communities, who are critically underserved by existing sites, more places to stay legally. But experts say some appear deliberately designed to be unsuitable.
“A lot of councils are continuing to create what can only be called ‘dummy’ sites,” said Adrian Jones, policy lead for the Moving for Change network, which aims to improve life for nomadic Gypsies and Travellers. “They create sites where they think nobody would want to go, knowing that then the police can use their new powers to arrest people. It’s breathtakingly cynical.”
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There has always been a shortage of transit sites, which can be used for a limited time – usually no longer than a month – set by the relevant council. To give some sense of the lack of availability, the organisation Friends, Families and Travellers conducted a survey of all local authorities and private providers in England in 2020 to find out how many transit sites had free pitches. Only five sites had any available pitches for Travelling families, with only 42 transit pitches available throughout the whole of England.
But in some cases, campaigners say, councils appear to prioritise the objections and prejudices of would-be neighbours over what is best for the people who actually need to use the sites, meaning that the worst option is often selected – and facilities (such as toilets, showers and washing-up areas) are the bare minimum permitted. Campaigners suspect that the aim of providing sparse provision is to deter Travellers from staying.
Ryan Powell, reader in urban studies at the University of Sheffield, explains: “A key legacy of anti-Gypsy and Traveller racism is a network of poorly maintained sites in secluded and inhospitable environments. Sites are not consistently found in marginal places by chance, but rather reflect the long-term stigmatisation of Gypsies and Travellers and a widespread desire for separation from an imagined threat.”
Some sites have no electricity or hot water, with council officers expecting residents to bring in their own generators for power. Jones describes some facilities as “appalling”.
Bill Forrester is chair of the National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers – a network of local council workers who liaise with GRT communities about site provision and management.
He told the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2021 that new transit sites with decent facilities were needed, as the committee took evidence on the new trespass proposals.
“You cannot just provide some tarmac and hardly any facilities to people,” he said. For some very basic sites, he added, the idea seems to be “to have somewhere to say ‘this is accommodation’, to be able to enforce the law against people stopping in that area”.
At one transit site, in Smethwick in the West Midlands, the toilets and showers are housed in a shipping container. Capacity is advertised as 34 pitches, which Jones calculates could mean that up to 170 people are sharing these scant facilities at any one time. In fact, though, the site is barely used.
There is no electricity; the site is covered in gravel, a tricky surface for vehicles, and unpleasant to live and play on; and the cost of staying is significant. Rent is £82.40 a week and the deposit is more than £250 for each caravan.
A spokesperson for the local Sandwell Council said the site and facilities were “maintained and serviced to ensure they are in clean working order”, but acknowledged that the shower and toilet block was a modernised shipping container. They added that the site had a “fresh water supply” and hot showers.
It’s a far cry from the open road and clean campsite with electricity hook-ups that most people expect on a camping or caravanning holiday.
Analysis of transit sites: contaminated land, near hazards
For this investigation, I mapped 242 of the authorised, permanent Travellers’ sites run by councils or housing associations in England.
More than a third (36%) were within 50 metres of one or more of an A-road, motorway, railway line, refuse or recycling plant, sewage works, industrial estate, canal, river or sea. More than half (51%) were within 100 metres, 72% within 300 metres and 79% within 500 metres.
Rover Way in Cardiff is an example of a particularly poorly located permanent site: it’s on the Cardiff Bay foreshore, near a sewage outflow, a sewage pumping station, a steelworks and a busy road.
Official data for England’s transit sites is patchier and based on a two-day snapshot, so we cross-referenced the government’s official count with our own research and experts and identified 60 sites.
Half (50%) were within 50 metres of one or more hazards, while two-thirds (67%) were within 100 metres. More than a quarter (28%) were within 100 metres of two or more hazards.
Most of these sites are supposed to be open by now, but not all are, with two still in the planning system – including one recommended for planning approval by Reading Council. It’s within around 100 metres of the local sewage station, next to a recycling centre that takes waste including asbestos, in a flood zone, and on the edge of the so-called ‘emergency planning zone’ around the atomic weapons establishment at Burghfield, within which housing is not allowed in case there is ever an explosion.
A council spokesperson told us that Reading had assessed 80 possible sites before picking this one, and admitted that the “complexities of this proposed site are fully acknowledged”. A final decision has not yet been made. A further eight out of the 60 analysed are deemed open by local authorities and marked as such on the Caravan Count, but actually have no pitches available – a confusing situation for Travellers wishing to use them.
Contaminated land is also an issue. A prospective site on a former army camp in Dorset has been approved despite concerns about asbestos and other contaminants. Existing sites – in Brighton and East Lindsey, Lincolnshire – are prone to flooding. A transit site in Telford and Wrekin has no electricity, is at risk of flooding and sits on uneven land, although it does have water and toilets.
Another site in Warwickshire, formerly used for landfill and to store road chippings, was never lined properly and may contain “asbestos, heavy metals and possible contaminated water from unknown liquids”, according to a report from 2016.
Objections from residents and MPs
The problem facing local authorities is that all proposed sites – both transit and permanent camps – face objections from local residents, often informed by racist stereotypes about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
At a noisy public meeting to discuss a proposed transit site in Wolverhampton, residents expressed fears about “anti-social behaviour”, saying: “We don’t want it here.” Others talked about the effect on house prices.
Powell told openDemocracy attitudes like these end in the outcome of “official sites tend[ing] to be located in isolated and peripheral places… and Gypsies and Travellers tend[ing] to be evicted and displaced from other spaces”. Three years on, the proposed site still does not appear to be open.
Other proposed transit sites in the West Midlands have faced similar opposition. Pat McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South-East, objected to one passed for planning in his constituency, on contaminated land and near an industrial estate. He said he was “opposing plans to establish a camp for Travellers… after a local company made clear that the plans could threaten 30 local jobs” – because the company ”may relocate completely”. He called it “far too high a price to pay”.
While some local authorities are managing well-run transit sites, the overall picture is bleak for Britain’s nomadic communities.
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said: “Our planning policy is clear that [councils] should consider the effect of local environmental quality on the health and well-being of any travellers [sic] who may locate there when doing so.”
They added: “The new criminal trespassing offence targets only those who cause significant damage, disruption or distress while residing on land without permission. The offence will not be committed where no harm is caused.”
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