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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 01:03 GMT 02:03 UK
Rural England, Gypsies and land reform
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs reporter

Council tax protest
Council tax protest: Anger in Cottenham

The Cambridge village of Cottenham is an unlikely place for an old-fashioned revolt against authority.

But earlier this year, some 1,000 residents declared they would withhold their council tax until something was done about the travellers on the outskirts.

For decades there have been Gypsy communities living legally on two sites for 30 or so families near the village.

Then, at Easter 2003, the site grew as a number of Irish Traveller families arrived in the area.

Local tensions rose, as villagers believed their way of life under threat. Angry residents demanded answers and established a campaigning website, Middle England in Revolt.

Travellers who spoke out said they had nowhere else to go and almost 20 of the newly arrived families appealed against orders to leave.

Relations soured, the row went to a planning inquiry, and the affair looked set to follow the same path as similar stand-offs elsewhere.

But today, perhaps for the first time in the long and difficult history of relations between the settled majority and travelling minority, things may be looking up.

Residents have now agreed a common statement with representatives of the Gypsies and Irish Travellers, pinning the blame for their differences firmly on the government, not each other.

While the planning appeals will be heard in November, the two sides agree their differences essentially come down to one thing: housing.

1968 law

In 1968, the government ordered local councils to provide official caravan sites to prevent illegal encampments.

Rick Bristow, chairman of the Smithy Fen Residents Association near Cottenham.
And as we looked in more detail into the problems, we started to appreciate the problems that travellers face themselves
Rick Bristow, Cottenham resident

That law was repealed in 1994 and figures show that the number of families on unauthorised sites has grown as the number of official sites has declined (see table below).

Increasing numbers of Gypsies say they have followed official advice to buy land - but quite often it doesn't have planning permission for caravans and they get rejected when they try to get it later. In turn, this leads to lengthy and expensive evictions.

And so, this has been a summer of strife for many travelling communities and the settled residents with whom they come into contact.

Residents have accused Gypsy communities of a manner of social ills; Gypsy communities say they are victims of prejudice, racism and abuse.

Cottenham's traveller communities will not speak directly to the media after press reports which they say presented them as thieves and a menace to society.

Elsewhere, Wiltshire saw angry villagers picket the home of a judge who refused to evict travellers and even the Prince of Wales' model village, Poundbury, has been embroiled in a travellers' row.

But it's no longer just Gypsy campaigners who believe there is a big problem.

Last year more than 100 MPs lobbied government for action, albeit through the largely symbolic act of an Early Day Motion.

This year, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Commission for Racial Equality and the National Farmers' Union have said something really, really needs to be done.

Targeting government

Rick Bristow, of the Cottenham Residents' Association, said its research into the background convinced them that perhaps they should redirect their efforts towards government.

People who are affected, travellers or settled communities, want to see this solved once and for all - if it's not, then it's going to get worse
Andrew Ryder, Traveller Law Reform Coalition
This in turn, led to the joint statement with the Travellers Law Reform Coalition, the body trying to get the law changed.

"And as we looked in more detail into the problems, we started to appreciate the problems that travellers face themselves," said Mr Bristow.

"We were pointing the finger at travellers asking what right they had to do what they have been doing. But we appreciate that there is a very serious problem [with the law].

"No settled community will tolerate bad behaviour or illegal encampment. But the government has to take a firmer hand."

Some peers have frequently tried to amend various housing acts to reintroduce a duty on local councils, although to date they have not been successful.

In the meantime, the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, responsible for housing policy, will only say it is expecting to complete its review of Gypsy policy by the end of the summer.

Growing pressure

But pressure is growing on the government to act, even though traditionally Gypsy issues have been seen very much as a local affair.
Borough officials clear the site
Borough officials clear the site

Barney Holbeche, head of parliamentary affairs for the National Farmers' Union, said farmers regularly complained about unauthorised encampments.

"We opposed the repeal of the duty [in 1994] because although it was not perfect, it put pressure on local authorities to play their part," said Mr Holbeche.

"The current situation, where local authorities have powers but no obligation to create caravan sites, means that some councils do their best and other councils say 'that's us off the hook', knowing the problem will almost certainly fall on their neighbours.

"A lot of what we feared when the duty to provide caravan sites was removed has come to pass," says Mr Holbeche.

Andrew Ryder of the Traveller Law Reform Coalition said while stand-offs had worsened in the past year, he hoped the progress in Cottenham would be the beginning of something positive. Residents were now working with Gypsies and travellers in jointly lobbying government, he said.

"Local settled people can be vehemently anti-traveller but we have really come through that with the Cottenham agreement," he said.

"The government may think that sites are not cost-effective. But there are huge costs in travellers seeking retrospective planning permission or appeals on land they have bought. One council recently spent 500,000 on legal action against a community. Evictions can easily cost 150,000.

"People who are affected, travellers or settled communities, want to see this solved once and for all. If it's not, then it's going to get worse."

Land swap proposals

So what happens next? Cottenham residents have suggested a "land swap" scheme.

Gypsies would give up fields they lawfully own but are prevented from developing. In return, councils would find them safe, appropriate sites, protecting their way of life.

But would these policies solve the mutual distrust and suspicions?

"Tensions and prejudice are born of fear and ignorance, and I'm as guilty of that as anyone else," says Mr Bristow.

"But the big problem in most people's minds is numbers. If sites can be kept to a recommended size, say 15 pitches [family plots] then communities of this size can fit in quite easily. That's peaceful co-existence.

"But when numbers grow, like they have done here in Cottenham, then that's when trouble comes."

Gypsy caravan count: Latest figures
Count date Caravans counted Unauthorised encampments Approved council Approved private
Jan 04 14,309 3,571 5,848 4,890
July 03 14,700 3,960 6,012 4,728
Jan 03 13,949 3,028 6,160 4,761
July 02 14,166 3,499 6,116 4,551
Jan 02 13,719 2,687 6,316 4,716
Source: ODPM

Land swap proposal for travellers
10 Aug 04 |  Cambridgeshire
Council pledge on travellers' row
14 Jul 04 |  Cambridgeshire
Gypsies stay despite eviction bid
03 Aug 04 |  Wiltshire
The battle for Gypsy land
20 Apr 04 |  UK

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