I have thought long and hard before writing about Travellers again for reasons which I will explain. Before doing so I need to set the context.
Over the Easter weekend I was closely involved with trying to help Councillor Dawn Barnett in getting Brighton and Hove City Council and the Sussex Police to respond to an encampment on Greenleas Park at Hangelton.
Dawn was inundated with calls from local residents, understandably angry that caravans and large cars and vans had been driven onto the park. On the first day of the school holidays the large gate and lock at the entrance of the park was sawn/crowbarred through and initially four caravans driven onto the park.
The Council and Police were contacted, visited the site but took no action. At this point there was space at the transit site at Horsdean but the occupants of the park were not directed there. No action was taken over the damage to the lock and gate as there was insufficient evidence.
Over the next 2 days more caravans and vehicles arrived and the local people were effectively prevented from using the park. The caravans on the football pitches meant the youth football for the weekend was cancelled.
Similar encampments occurred over the next few days at Withdean Park (threatening the nature reserve and lilac collection) and at Hollingbury Park.
Many gypsies and Travellers visit Brighton and Hove. Only a small minority cause problems of the type that I have just described. This particular group own large luxury caravans, towed by top of the range 4 wheel drive vehicles. They have become associated with anti-social behaviour, fly tipping, and used the park and bushes as a toilet.
The people which encamped on Greenleas had no intention of using the official traveller sites. I stress again they are in a minority and their actions and behaviour is causing problems for the majority of Travellers who do behave with consideration for the settled community.
The Conservative Group have been asking the Council and Police why s61 powers were not used to move this group â€“ with their history of anti-social behaviour â€“ over the Easter weekend? The Police advised that they were unable to do so because the Council did not ask them to. We have yet to have a reply as to why the Council did not ask. We have now submitted freedom of information requests.
In the meantime plans have now become fully public for the Council to build a new traveller camp for static caravans (i.e. for Travellers to live in permanently).
The reason I have thought carefully before writing this is because of the question of racism. As the concerns over encampments on the Cityâ€™s parks have increased, so has the rhetoric used. I am aware that Travellers and Gypsies do face discrimination. I have described this in the past as â€˜the last respectable prejudice.â€™
Councillor Ben Duncan, the Green Party Cabinet Member for Community Safety, has caused me to pause for thought. At a recent meeting of the City-wide Community Safety Forum he said,
â€˜I urge everyone here today, especially the councillor members who really should know better, to bear in mind their responsibility to respect the law â€“ and the principles of community cohesion â€“ when debating these issues.
A good test may be to substitute the word â€˜blackâ€™ for the word â€˜Travellerâ€™ when discussing the issue: for example a LAT meeting to discuss â€˜The Issue of Travellers in the cityâ€™ would be as offensive to many as a meeting to discuss â€˜the Issue of Blacks in the Cityâ€™ â€“ and it would probably be illegal to.â€™
I think Councillor Duncan does have a point and have considered this very carefully when dealing with the encampments in the parks I have described, and in my approach to the meeting at Patcham about the proposed permanent site.
In terms of the encampments on the parks, and associated anti-social behaviour, I have concluded that not dealing with this is actually causing more prejudice against the majority of Travellers. Allowing flagrant breaches of the law like this damages community cohesion and encourages racism.
The issue of the proposed permanent Traveller site at Patcham is more difficult. Before writing about it I tried the test which Councillor Duncan suggested â€“ i.e. substituting the word â€˜blackâ€™ for â€˜Traveller.â€™ Doing this actually provided me with challenges and much food for thought. It caused me to step back and consider my â€“ and wider societyâ€™s â€“ whole attitude to Travellers.
The permanent static Traveller camp will consist of 16 permanent caravans together with separate toilet blocks. They are designed for Travellers with local connections. The site chosen is on the South Downs and in the South Downs National Park. Permission will be required from the National Park Authority. The site would not be for the Irish Travellers who have been camping on our City Parks (they do not have local connections and it is unlikely they would wish to settle there even if invited to do so.)
I am still unclear which Travellers do actually want to move to this site. The more I look into it this seems to be something thought up by non-travellers who have decided what is best for Travellers.
It is at this point that Councillor Duncanâ€™s test begun crystallising some worries I have had all along about this proposal. The site chosen by the Green Party for this camp is, presumably deliberately, located north of the bypass and away from the settled community. It is the building of a camp, separated from the rest of the city by the A27, for one ethnic group to live in. It amounts to the creation of a ghetto, and separates one ethnic group permanently in a camp away from all other people.
Do Travellers want to be put in a ghetto on the Downs? Is it actually racist to treat them in this way?
I think these questions need careful considerations. I still favour helping Travellers to help themselves â€“ allowing them to buy their own smaller pieces of land on which to place 2/3 caravans. This approach can improve community cohesion and integration. I doubt whether the proposal for a camp in this location is in anyoneâ€™s interest â€“ Travellers or the wider community â€“ and it is not racist to say so.