Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Travelling Under Pressure

Department of Environment figures on the distribution of travellers show that there has been a dramatic fall in numbers over recent years. SQUALL takes a look at some of the ways in which the roads of Britain have become the subject of an ethnic whitewash.

Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 32-33.

There is no doubt that the imposition of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act is having a significant effect on the ease with which traveller sites can be evicted. It is worth noting however, that the push to rid the country of travellers was in operation long before the Criminal Justice Act arrived as a further eviction facilitator.

Figures published by the Department of Environment show that between July 1993 and July 1994, the number of unauthorised vehicles fell dramatically in almost every part of the country, some by as much as 68 per cent. The overall national figure decreased by 14.1 per cent (see box).

Bearing in mind that the Criminal Justice Act only came into force in November of last year, these figures bear testament to a systematic drive to destroy the travelling community, with or without legislation.

The greatest difference in the number of unauthorised vehicles is in the South West region (made up of Avon, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire), where the 728 vehicles resident in the area in July 1993 had plummeted to 382 by January 1995.

A further breakdown of the South West regional figures, clearly demonstrates that the county contributing the largest drop in numbers is Avon. Dropping from 332 in July '93 to just 61 in January '95.

At first sight this seems incongruous with Avon County Council’s efforts in the past to help establish sites. Avon is a hung council but, in previous years, the Labour group have made moves to ensure adequate site provision in an area associated with travellers for hundreds of years. Indeed, up until 1993 some progress was being made with site provision in the area. Then local elections brought in a new wave of Liberal Democrat councillors from Bath.

As befits the city of Bath, these new Lib Dem councillors were right wing in attitude and began to align their votes with the Tories over issues related to travellers, thus outnumbering the Labour group. During local elections there were a spate of leaflets seeking to capitalise on the national hysteria created to ease in the Criminal Justice Act. Travellers became the pawns of local political backbiting.

One election leaflet issued by the Liberal Democrats slated Labour for seeking planning permission for a travellers site in Brislington. The politically expedient reason they gave was that the site would disturb a family of local badgers.

“Badgers save Brislington” the leaflet proclaimed. “Your [Lib Dem] Focus Team are pleased to announce that plans for a Travellers Site at Bath Road, Brislington have now been dropped following the discovery of a badger sett near the proposed site.

“Labour Councillors,” it scoffed, “voted to continue with the plans”.

However, one month later the Liberal Democrats showed little concern when another family of badgers were forced to relocate from their sett in nearby St George’s, after a property developer bought the site to build on.

Any Labour councillor working for the rights of travellers thus became the target of accusations of being in support of “the filth and degradation” brought by the travellers.

Such pawn-playing served to further ferment local misinformation surrounding the lives of travellers; with the new right wing Lib Dem councillors knowing they were onto a sly winner with the use of such racially inflammatory rhetoric in a city like Bath.

During recent years, an unholy alliance between Lib Dem and Tory councillors has formed every time the travellers’ sub committee met to consider the future of particular unauthorised sites. The sub committee consists of four Labour, three Tory and two Democrat councillors.

One of the main tactics used by councillors to oppose site provision, is to vote for the referral of particular planning considerations to policy and resources committees, or even to full council meetings. This often delays the process until such time as the travellers have been evicted from the site anyway.

The figures released by the Department of Environment are in fact misleading in their own right. In order to collate statistics on the distribution of unauthorised vehicles, the DoE relies on counts conducted biannually by district council environmental officers. At the beginning of last year, a number of district councils in the Avon area - particularly Bath, Wansdyke and North Avon - began excluding what they considered to be new travellers from their assessment of unauthorised vehicle distribution. It is fair to say that some of the drop in the number of unauthorised vehicles between 1993 and 1994, was due to this change in counting procedure. However, this does not explain the size of the drop.

Regional Totals of Unauthorised Traveller Vehicles (DoE returns)

 
July '93
July '94
% change
Greater London
145
47
-68
South East
678
648
-4
Eastern
832
814
-2
South West
728
396
-46
East Midlands
358
280
-22
West Midlands
702
787
+12
North West
388
339
-13
Yorks & Humberside
470
422
-10
North
100
49
-51
England
4402
3782
-14

The worsening situation in Avon is also partly traceable to the appointment of Graham Jones as Traveller Coordination Manager for Avon. Jones had previously worked as Gypsy Liaison Officer with Essex County Council before taking up the similar post with Avon in 1994. It is worth noting that one of the attractions of the position is that the Avon post is the highest paid appointment of its kind in the country. His appointment was voted through by the Lib Dems and Tories.

Upon arrival, Jones described his job as being “to solve Avon’s traveller problem”. However, his solutions have been more by way of eviction than by site establishment, with Avon County Council spending a staggering £632,000, mostly on the eviction of unauthorised traveller sites in the area. This figure does not include the cost of policing.

Avon and Somerset Police estimate the cost of one day’s enforcement of a recent eviction of a site on the A46 at £10,000, meaning that the overall cost of evictions in Avon last year possibly exceeded £1 million.

In bizarre contrast to his job description, Jones has seen to it that a large number unauthorised traveller sites in the Avon area have been evicted.

Local council officers report that at the time of Graham Jones’s arrival there were between 20 and 40 unauthorised sites in Avon. A year later there are only one or two left.

One Avon County Council officer told SQUALL: “The physical presence of travellers has virtually been wiped out since last year.” In truth, a plummet in the number of travellers in the Avon area was well-advanced by the time Jones arrived, but his actions have facilitated further drops.

Jones’s premise for multiple evictions was that Avon County Council should concentrate on three main site applications and evict the rest. Before his appointment, Avon had a number of possible sites for which they were seeking planning permission, the idea being that if any applications failed there would be back-up applications in progress that might succeed. By limiting the number of sites to three, Graham Jones put all the planning applications in one basket. The three he chose to concentrate on were Racecourse Quarry, Holywood Lane and Burnett.

The Racecourse Quarry enquiry took three years to complete and was the first major site application that Graham Jones had supervised in his position as Traveller Co-ordination Manager. As described in more detail in ‘Going Round in Circulars’ on page 29, this application was lost. The other two sites are presently the subject of uncompleted public enquiries, but are also beset with difficulties.

Numbers of Unauthorised Traveller Vehicles in the South West

 
July '93
July '94
Avon
332
66
Cornwall
136
121
Devon
22
23
Dorset
102
27
Glocs.
38
49
Somerset
58
55
Wiltshire
39
55

The Burnett site is on ex-Ministry of Defence land, ironically situated on Gypsy Lane. However, during the course of the site application and consequent enquiry, parts of the site have been developed into industrial units. With big business moving into the area the likelihood that planning permission will be granted for travellers is rapidly diminishing.

Hasty evictions of unauthorised sites in Avon have also been facilitated using a little-known technique termed ‘self-help’ eviction. The law surrounding ‘self-help’ evictions is, to say the least, sketchy but it entails the use of ‘reasonable’ force to remove trespassers and their vehicles from land without recourse to the courts. ‘Self-help’ evictions have been possible under English and Welsh Law for centuries and require that ‘reasonable’ notice be given to the trespassers, although the definition of ‘reasonable’ is undefined.

The following legal advice was given to Avon and Somerset Police in 1985:

1. Trespassers on the land for more than two days may be able to claim a self- help eviction was unsafe in a court of law. Although the land owner may say that they did not know they were there.

2. Self-help evictions should not be used after trespassers have been on the land for more than 7 days. The owner must, after this period, go through the normal procedures for claiming their land in a court of law, even if they did not know trespassers were there.

3. The police can attend to ensure that there is no violence by either side. They should not take any part in the eviction, either physically or verbally.

In May 1993, Avon County Council initiated the ‘self-help’ eviction of travellers and five vehicles from a site near an old railway near Bath. Forty-two hours notice were given to those on the site, with the eviction taking place whilst many of the occupants were absent and thus unable to remove their vehicles. In this case the travellers had been present on the land for 5/6 weeks, rendering the eviction definitely unlawful.

Graham Jones was not involved in this particular ‘self-help’ eviction, but he is known to be in favour of using such techniques and several of his efforts to do so have been blocked by Avon’s Traveller Sub Committee. However, the Committee’s power over Jones’s activities are partly limited by his semi-autonomous position as Traveller Co-ordination Manger.

Graham Jones has no experience of working with new travellers and is described by council workers in the area as having little respect or sympathy with their way of life. He is also described as having little time for the interference of elected councillors.

Being an advocate of ID cards for travellers, a scheme currently piloted in Dublin, Jones approached Friends and Families of Travellers, seeking cooperation for the establishment of such a scheme in Avon. Needless to say, FFT expressed not the least bit of interest in becoming co-advocates of a scheme more than likely to be operated to the detriment of new travellers.

Although Graham Jones is not popular with those concerned for the rights of travellers in Avon, he is surely aware that the dissolving of Avon County Council into several unitary authorities next year, makes his position far safer.

As a consequence of both his actions and those of the Lib Dem/Tory anti-traveller stance, hundreds of portaloos and other facilities acquired to help unauthorised encampments, are sitting in council storage at places like Tolmarten.

Meanwhile Avon, an area associated with gypsies and travellers for centuries, has witnessed the most dramatic decrease in the number of unauthorised traveller vehicles in the country; partly facilitated by someone brought in to represent the interests of the very people he is helping to eradicate. And partly by local politicians using news-manufactured prejudice to win their little power struggles.

There is one other factor working against travellers in Avon, an influence difficult to fully assess but undoubtedly a strong local force: the Conservative MP for Woodspring, a constituency within the Avon area, is one Dr Liam Fox.

In the public enquiry that considered Avon County Council’s planning application for a travellers site at Racecourse Quarry, Liam Fox testified against the proposal and the application was turned down. He has similarly testified in other cases, always against provision for travellers. Which is no small wonder, for Liam Fox was indeed one of the 16 Tories that sat on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill standing committee. He didn’t say anything during the committee stage debates however, simply taking the odd note and passing the odd note to his colleagues.

And the reason why he was sitting quietly watching? The reason why he testifies against local applications for travellers, and the reason why he is such an anti-traveller force to be reckoned with?

The reason is simple, Dr Liam Fox is Parliamentary Private Secretary to none other than the Right Dishonourable, Michael Howard, Britain’s beloved Home Secretary and father of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Acts.


Related Articles
GOING ROUND IN CIRCULARS -  report on 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
SOME-WHERE-SET IN SOMERSET - travellers tales from the West Country - Squall 7, Summer 19945