As June gives way to July we’re full swing into another “travelling season”. Unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller camps are, at least according to the headlines, busy invading our derelict land, green spaces, our parks and commons. I say “ours” because although I don’t actually own any myself it’s perfectly clear that those pieces of land belong to my kind (I’m a white settled person or “gorja”) and definitely not to Gypsies or Travellers.
The incidents that hit the headlines are just about always accompanied by reports of environmental damage, anti-social or uncivilised behaviour and/or crimes such as vandalism or theft. Lesser nuisances of dogs running loose, unbiddable children and the noise of generators add to the local sense of invasion and injustice. Frustration bubbles each hour and day that the camp remains in situ. It becomes unwise to walk through the nearest out of sight spot likely serving as an impromptu toilet, and piles of waste expand. Meanwhile the police and local authorities appear to do nothing.
However, perhaps understandably, unless we are personally affected by an encampment we don’t give it much thought. Periodically we’ll notice a politician promising to do something, usually around election time and usually amounting to demanding the government to give “more powers” to shift the camp quickly.
In fact that is it. That’s pretty much the only response offered – more powers to shift people quicker.
No matter the issue, shift ’em quicker is the solution. Crime? Shift ’em. Environmental damage? Shift ’em. Kids not in school? Shift ’em. It’s no great wonder that people can come to the conclusion that different laws apply (or don’t apply) for Gypsies and Travellers. The law is the law surely? Yes but, shift ’em.
When we allow ourselves to view Gypsies and Travellers and criminals interchangeably, as entirely uncivilised people wholly unlike ourselves, and allow for only one response, perhaps it’s not surprising that nothing really changes.
But it can change. Since 2011 Leeds City Council has added another option to its armoury – negotiation. It’s not that it never resorts to evicting people. But by offering to negotiate, to be civilised, it’s amazing how rapidly the wheat falls from the chaff. Suddenly the people on camps are not all criminal savages (although we have given ourselves time to apply the law if they are). Now there are people we can get to know and work with to solve problems. Since initiating this policy of negotiated agreements for temporary use of acceptable land, alongside provision of basic waste management, the police and local authority are saving up to an estimated £238,000 each year compared to under the old shift ’em, and quick policy.
The government’s consultation on unauthorised encampments, launched earlier this year by Dominic Raab MP, has now closed. We aren’t expecting any great changes as a result. However, if you experience an unauthorised encampment in your area, don’t be shy to let your local politicians know that shift ’em quick isn’t always the best response.
Helen Jones is chief executive officer, Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange @leedsgate, facebook.com/LeedsGATE