SOME-WHERE-SET IN SOMERSET
SOMERSET has been the scene of much traveller activity recently.
Squall 7, Summer 1994, pg. 11.
Traditionally a non-conformist county, it has become a major focus of confrontation between traveller/gypsy communities and property-owning locals and outsiders; a fertile seed bed of new traveller initiatives on the one hand, and old-fashioned bigotry on the other.
After many years of Tory rule, the Liberal-Democrats now control most of the area. Here is a brief summary of some recent key events from the ‘Land of Summer’.
The long campaign to have the Middlezoy Transit Site made permanent (after many years at a disused airfield on the Levels) has finally been won by the County Council, who wished to make provision for gypsies and travellers before the Caravan Sites Act is abolished. Vociferous villagers, who had set up a 24hr roadside protest camp (flying the Union Jack on high!) were evicted amid accusations that they had contributed far more trouble and mess to the area than any travellers could. Their spokespeople were conspicuous, if only because they were the ones with the strongest Laa-ndon accents; a very good campaign ploy as it turned out, as the site is now established.
Meanwhile, the debate within Somerset’s County and District councils shows a high level of understanding of the implications of the Criminal Justice Bill, unlike at a national political level. After the hate campaign against travellers at Dommet Wood, Buckland St. Mary (see pic), South Somerset District Council (SSDC) have only allowed the travellers to stay until 31st March 1995, despite the fact that it has been a Gypsy camp for over 120 years.
County councillor Dave Gordon said, “It’s a pity there have been nasty rumours spread about these people which, in my experience, are totally untrue”.
SSDC council leader John Miller said it was important that people begin to realise the severity of the Bill going through Parliament: “You cannot have people shoved around the countryside indefinitely. We need to establish a network of sites for them, and I don’t think it is in anyone’s remit to criticise other people’s lifestyles”.
The Children’s Society was also instrumental in persuading councillors to take “a positive and brave decision” while Yeovil MP Paddy Ashdown also backed their application. But if traditional sites like Dommet Wood are lost, as looks likely, what hope is there of establishing new ones?
This question has been sorely tested in other parts of the county recently. Another SSDC councillor, Annie Murdoch, has also been publicly supporting the rights of travellers at the Somerton Moor site and at Tinker’s Bubble in Paddy Ashdown’s home village of Norton-sub-Hamdon. At Somerton, 40 farmers, supported by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and a reluctant County Council, went to Yeovil's courts in early May to evict the estimated 300 travellers. Due to the eviction of a site in Avon at the end of April, the Somerton camp had swelled in numbers, causing panic at the NFU and pressure at the site itself. With widespread rumours of drug dealing, begging, blocking rights of way and even sheep-worrying, (all attributable to Tory councillor Pat Mountain), as well as the court case, the travellers had to move on. For posterity’s sake Mr. Mountain also supplied the following gems to the local press: “Our hard-earned taxes are being used to finance this aberrant and abhorrent lifestyle” and “Only the supremely naive would not connect the increase in theft with their presence”. Fortunately, few voters in Somerset endorse such flog-em-and-whip-em views.
Meanwhile, at Tinker’s Bubble a group of "Settlers" are following the advice of the Government in order to survive the proposed anti-traveller legislation. They have bought 40 acres of land for £50,000 and joined the NFU. Although Paddy Ashdown has supported their application for 10 tents and traditional farming methods, fellow SSDC Lib-Dems think the new community will scare off local wildlife and tourists because of the proximity of Ham Hill Country Park. Anonymous ‘Wanted’ notices have appeared in the village, warning locals that it might become a re-run of the Middlezoy saga, while the local pub landlord has called the settlers ‘pigs’ and banned them. Others say they don’t want tent people’s children at the local school. As of the end of May 1994, planners may ask John Gummer, Environment Secretary, to issue an Article 4 directive, removing their right to camp on their own land for 28 days a year.
As can be seen from these cases, even if a site has the backing of prominent politicians and is owned by a sympathetic council or the people concerned (see also 'Landowner Battles for "Underdog" Travellers', SQUALL 5), it can be enormously difficult to overcome the prejudices of local people and more especially, outsiders who have spent a small fortune moving to a ‘nice’ area. Even where the sites have been established for many years, local prejudice can be overpowering.
Having said that, there are a number of ‘quiet’ sites in Somerset where, it seems, people are left in peace to get on with their lives.
However, if the bigotry we see is happening in a ‘liberal’ county like Somerset, what is going on in the more ‘all-they-need-is-a-good-cultural-cleanse’ parts of the country? After the abolition of the Caravan Sites Act will some counties become no-go areas for travellers, while the more sympathetic ones attract an unfair share of the national traveller population?
If you have direct experience of recent travellers' tales please send them to SQUALL, c/o Wessex Correspondent.
ON THE 28TH MAY 1994 New Travellers failed to win Gypsy status in a ruling by the High Court. This means that local authorities do NOT have to find them accommodation in the same way they have to for Gypsies. Lord Justices Neill, Leggatt and Millet ruled against 3 groups of evicted travellers, 2 from Gloucestershire and 1 from Devon.
Of course the impact of the decision will be lessened when statutory local authority provision for gypsys is ended by the Criminal Justice Bill.
DIY IN THE STICKS - Tinkers Bubble, and the difficulty of restrictive planning laws for rural communities - Squall 8, Autumn 1994
GOING ROUND IN CIRCULARS - the affect on travellers of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act - Squall 10, Summer 1995
TRAVELLERS, FRIENDS AND FAMILIES - travellers' support group view the future - Squall 7, Summer 1994