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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Rights and Responsibilities: Delivering Services for the Gypsy and Traveller Community Locally

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

At an event organised by The House magazine on the gypsy and traveller community Meg gave the following speech.


News in the mainstream media about the Gypsy and Traveller community is usually famine or flood - and often bad, for them, the local community and community cohesion. Unless, or so I’m told, you follow football. Freddie Eastwood, an English Romany Gypsy who lives in a mobile home in Essex, made the winning goal for Southend that knocked Manchester United out of the Carling Cup.


But out of the media spotlight Gypsies and Travellers remain one of the most socially excluded groups in society. It is still the case that they have a life expectancy of 10-12 years below that of the settled population. It is still the case that almost one in five Gypsy and Traveller women has experienced the death of a child, compared to less than 1% of the settled population.


There is also the situation where we have around 4,000 caravans - nearly one quarter of the total - on land where they have no right to be. Many travellers have bought land and developed it without planning permission. Others camp wherever they can find a space, on land that they do not own. 


A National Shortage

There is a national shortage of authorised caravan sites, a shortage that drives many to camp in places where they shouldn’t. This, in turn, leads to conflict and tension with the settled population. Although there are many examples - indeed I live near one - of Gypsies and Travellers living peacefully on sites alongside the settled population, we also see examples where this is not the case. Often it is where new sites are proposed that the tensions are greatest. Over the last year we have seen examples of very strong reactions by local communities to proposals for Gypsy and Traveller sites in their vicinity.


Paradoxically, this reaction against new sites only makes matters worse. Fuelled by media coverage, public attention remains fixed on what divides people rather than on what unites them. Local authorities spend enormous sums of money getting rid of Gypsies and Travellers and cleaning up after them. But they only move the problem around - it’s not solved.


The stress of being continually moved affects the health of Gypsy and Traveller families. Obviously it also makes it harder for children to be educated. Gypsy and Traveller children have the lowest educational attainment of any racial group.


Quite apart from issues of fairness and equity, there is a sound business case for site provision. Let me give you an example. Before providing a transit site, Bristol City Council spent around £200,000 a year on enforcement and clean up costs. Building a transit site cost £300,000 to £400,000 and enforcement cost have now fallen to £5,000 a year. In two years the site will have paid for itself. 


Gypsies and Travellers want to preserve their culture, but beyond that they want what most people want:

  • a safe pleasant place to live,
  • access to shops and healthcare, and
  • schooling for their children.


Given this, most will accept the implicit bargain that society offers and live peaceful and law abiding lives. Those that do not are subject to the rule of law, just like the rest of the population. 


Some More Effective than Others

Most practitioners agree that there are sufficiently strong enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised development, unauthorised encampments and anti-social behaviour. However, some local authorities are more effective than others in using them, and the Task Group on Site Provision and Enforcement is looking at why this might be so. They have also considered how local authorities might be able to deal more quickly with unauthorised development. The department will shortly be consulting on extending the use of Temporary Stop Notices.


Giving Gypsies and Travellers a decent place to live is at the heart of the Government’s policy framework. For the first time, we are asking local housing authorities to carry out assessments of the need for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in their areas in the same way that they do for the settled population. I have this week laid regulations in Parliament that will bring into force this requirement, but I am glad to say that 80% of local authorities have either already completed needs assessments or have one in progress. Although I am very encouraged by this level of response, I would urge all local authorities who have not yet done so, to put the necessary work in hand. The Government expects all Gypsies and Travellers Needs Assessments to be completed by the end of 2007.


Providing accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers requires both housing and planning expertise. We recognise that, historically, many county councils have been and continue to be active on Gypsy and Traveller issues and we would urge partnership working to take advantage of this experience. However, over time we would expect district councils and unitary authorities as housing and planning authorities to begin to take the lead in putting the new framework into place, bringing the relevant disciplines together for this purpose. The Commission for Racial Equality has recommended - and I endorse their view - that local authorities should adopt a corporate strategic approach to the provision of accommodation and services to Gypsies and Travellers.


But working on this issue is not about strategies from Government, but understanding the issues and working at a local level, in your own communities. We believe the best way of moving forward on these difficult issues is together - we all bring different perspectives, have different ideas on how to develop the cohesion in communities that will reduce tension and give this particular group of people a real stake in an area.


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