Landowner Battles for "Underdog" Travellers
Squall 5, Oct/Nov 1993, pg. 31.
When two travellers asked Peter Ellison if they could have refuge on his land, he said yes. Over the next two years his so-called neighbours and the local officialdom tried to get him to say no.
“People who wish to adopt a nomadic existence should be free to do so, provided they live within the law in the same way as their fellow citizens,” stated the DOE consultation paper on Travellers.
On the face of it, these words seem fair enough but, according to Peter Ellison a retired Devon farmer, the reality is far from indiscriminatory.
In January 1992, two Travellers pulled their vehicles onto his land near Dartington in Devon and asked his permission to stay for a while. He gave his assent, little knowing that the ensuing adverse local reaction would persuade him to fight a two year battle for the Travellers' right to stay.
“I had been a farmer for many years and met various itinerants who travelled and worked on the farms. I’ve also been running a group campaigning for the rights of children and young adults who have been in care and found that many travellers had at one time been in care. It was a question of liberty,” explained Ellison.
Once again, with an air of ‘only right and proper’, the DOE says that even if land-owners allow travellers to stay on their land, there must be recourse for neighbours to object on the grounds that “camping creates a nuisance”.
In reality, the nature of people’s prejudice against Travellers, some traditional and some media-manipulated, is such that objections come thick and fast regardless of whether there are real grounds for complaint or not.
“It was an escalating scene of total objection from the locals,” continued Ellison. “I was told they were noisy, scrounging, criminals, an eyesore and that their dogs harried sheep. But I couldn’t see any evidence of it and the people doing the objecting didn’t have any either. As far as I could see, it was all prejudice and it sometimes became very personal towards me as well.”
As a consequence of local objections, the South Hams District Council issued an enforcement notice on Ellison, to take effect on October 5th 1992. This notice required him to:
1. Stop the use of all vehicles and benders on the land for residential purposes.
2. Remove from the land all vehicles and benders.
“Travellers, like other citizens, should seek to provide their own accommodation, seeking planning permission where necessary like anyone else,” ran the DOE paper.
Ellison responded to the enforcement order by entering a planning application for a six pitch temporary transit site. The request seemed reasonable enough, there was only one local household that could see the site and they lived right across the valley. However, part of the recent Government’s directives against Travellers is the 1991 Planning and Compensation Act, which includes added provision prohibiting the use of land for caravans.
In January 1993, planning permission was refused and the following month South Hams District Council began a prosecution against Ellison for failing to comply with the enforcement order. But continued campaigning on the Travellers behalf, the prosecution was dropped in May and the Local Council agreed that the matter should be decided at a public enquiry to be held on September 1st This enquiry lasted two days and the final verdict will be given in a month.
“We are fairly confident of winning,” said Ellison. “The locals put up a lot of objections but basically they didn’t have any evidence.”
If Peter Ellison does succeed in winning planning permission for the transit site, it will be because he has had the perseverance and determination to see justice done to what he describes as “the underdogs”.
Whilst the DOE are planning to remove all local authority duties requiring that provision is made for Travellers, they are also saying that they should still be ‘free to travel’. But, if there are to be no sites provided, if all byways, droves and lay-bys are prohibited spaces and if landowners have to spend two years fighting for the right to establish even a small transit camp, then the words “people who wish to adopt a nomadic existence should be free to do so” are just conciliatory nonsense; a see-through moral mask placed awkwardly on an age-old prejudicial dislike of travelling people.