How can society accommodate travellers?

Britain's traveller community has a long-standing, 500-year heritage.

Dale Farm Residents of the Dale Farm encampment are determined to stay in their homes

But use of the terms Gypsy and traveller continues to stir strong emotion among members of settled communities.

For 86 families currently living on England's largest traveller site, a grim deadline is looming.

They have been told to leave Dale Farm, near Basildon, in Essex, with a deadline due to expire at midnight, on Wednesday.

The travellers own the site at Dale Farm, but half of its pitches - 51 - do not have planning permission and have been deemed illegal.

Basildon Council said it was reluctantly taking what it called a "last-resort measure", after a 10-year legal battle.

The UK's traveller community, estimated to have between 200,000 and 300,000 members, takes in several, distinct ethnic groups, such as Romany Gypsies and Scottish and Irish Travellers.

Confusingly, there are those who have chosen to give up the travelling lifestyle, but continue to call themselves travellers, in recognition of their historical, ethnic identity.

It is a shortage of space to set up in which has led to the kind of unauthorised sites which cause tension between communities.

The Dale Farm case has come as the UK government wants to shake up rules on support for traveller communities.

Ministers say the imposition of government targets on councils to accommodate traveller settlements, brought in by the previous government, has actually made things worse.

'Hysteria and hatred'

But Jake Bowers, editor of Travellers' Times, says changing this policy may not have the desired effect.

"I think the strategy taken on by the last government would probably have worked well, but the problem is that the planning system moves at a glacial pace, so we've not really been able to see the real benefits of that," he said.

"We live in a multi-cultural society and to accommodate that, it really needs leadership coming from the top. If it was left to local authorities, councils would probably never provide sites locally."

Mr Bowers, who comes from a Romany background, said much of the problem still centred on the "hysteria and hatred" surrounding the travelling community, adding: "It's the kind of thing people have been saying for a long time, that travelling communities are involved in antisocial behaviour and stealing children."

"Yes, there are people who do us no favours, but that's the visible minority."

The government recognises the vast majority of travellers as law-abiding citizens. But it says central targets are forcing councils to encroach onto greenbelt land and causing an increase in illegal sites.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles now wants to give travellers on official sites the same protection against eviction as residents on other mobile home sites.

At the same time, he would give councils more power to remove illegal traveller sites and place limitations on unauthorised traveller camps achieving legal status through retrospective planning applications.

Councils would also be eligible to share a pot of cash to create more official sites.

Local authorities would still have a duty to assess the accommodation needs of travellers and help accommodate traveller sites - but ministers say they are in a far better position than central government to decide what is best.

two girls sitting on a step Travellers say living together is an important part of their ethnic identity

The accusation that councils want to wash their hands of travellers is hotly disputed.

In the case of Basildon Council, leader Tony Ball said he was open to discussing future accommodation needs with any evicted families.

And the Local Government Association has welcomed the prospect of greater powers to deal with illegal encampments.

"We know that one of the most effective ways to reduce the likelihood of unauthorised sites is to provide authorised ones," said David Parsons, chairman of the association's environment and housing board.

"This is why we are calling on government to help by relaxing some of the restrictions on the types of site which can be used as temporary accommodation for travellers.

"This would help make illegal encampments less common, while strengthening the ability of local authorities and police to evict people who do set up camp without permission."

Some groups believe addressing the issue goes beyond matters like planning law.

Start Quote

We often hear about the Big Society - well, Dale Farm is the perfect example of the Big Society”

End Quote Jake Bowers Travellers' Times

In Scotland, where the devolved government is responsible for planning, trouble flared recently between the travelling community and residents in the north-east.

Ministers, police, council and other representatives came together after tensions rose in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to set up a task force to find a way forward.

One of the groups involved - Article 12 in Scotland - has been focusing on the rights of younger members of the traveller community.

The group's national co-ordinator, Lynne Tammi, said 16 to 24-year-old members of such communities had come to feel "closed down".

"We've been trying to help young people from the Gypsy traveller community and settled communities come together, so there's a sharing of the culture," she said.

"I can appreciate people have concerns about Gypsy travellers, although there's good and bad in every community."

Ms Tammi said people did have legitimate concerns about crime, but that some responses - such as reporting the setting up of new of traveller encampments as a criminal act - did not help.

Dale Farm Some Basildon residents said everyone, including Dale Farm residents, must abide by the law

Back in Basildon, local Len Gridley said he had been subjected to "10 years of hell" by residents of the Dale Farm settlement. He says travellers must be required to abide by the same laws as everybody else.

"They should not be allowed to build on any greenbelt... without planning permission first," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Bowers said the looming eviction at Dale Farm was the "tip of the iceberg", with other similar cases.

He warned that people terrified of eviction from the encampment might go on to live - illegally - at the side of a road.

"There are two women at Dale Farm suffering from advanced cancer but they have people around them caring for them where they are," he said.

"We often hear about the Big Society - well, Dale Farm is the perfect example of the Big Society."

Mr Bowers added: "The best possible outcome of an eviction at Dale Farm is that it helps the understanding between travellers and settled residents in the same way the Brixton Riots in 1981 helped urban race relations."

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