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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 03:10 GMT
Will Minety Gypsies be able to stay?
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs, BBC News

An engineer at the Minety Gypsy site
Does the site measure up?
When passions run as high as they do over neighbourly disputes, it is perhaps wise that the language of the planning inquiry is as dispassionate as it comes.

Which is why during the inquiry into the Minety Gypsy encampment, Wiltshire, highways engineer Mark Baker was trudging through the grey afternoon with his measuring gizmos, getting the exact numbers on sight lines and safety factors.

But for all of those concerned with this deeply controversial site, what it comes down to is a very simple question: Do the Gypsies who moved into the area in August 2003 have a right to stay?

Map of Minety

If they do, the case may have far-reaching implications for a host of other similar disputes between travelling communities and villagers in others parts of rural England.

Gypsies bought the land - field 7920 in the officialese - knowing it did not have planning permission for development. They do not dispute this.

Within days, the community of 50 or so people laid drives, pipes and electricity cables. Fences soon divided the plots up and created to all intents and purposes a permanent enclosed space for the families. At the same time they put in a retrospective planning application - a legal tactic used elsewhere by Gypsies who say they expect to be turned down without having a fair hearing.

Minety Gypsy site
Growing community: Families have big plans

But many local residents screamed blue murder and the council rejected that application. A judge refused an eviction on human rights grounds - leading to a protest on his own lawn - and the matter landed on the desk of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. It's the minister's involvement and his eventual decision that makes this so important.

For the council and the residents the issue is a clear breach of planning. For the Gypsies, in the words of their counsel Brian Cox, the issue is one of local authorities "shifting the problem" rather than solving it.

Cause celebre

Minety has become a cause celebre among travelling communities campaigning for an overhaul of the law.

Maggie Smith-Bendell
They have spent the money on the land because they want to settle but protect their way of life
Maggie Smith-Bendell
Gypsy Council
"This is more or less their last chance," said Maggie Smith-Bendell of the Gypsy Council and spokesman for the community.

"They have spent the money on the land because they want to settle but protect their way of life. Education is important to these people.

"There are men there who have never been taught to read or write and they don't want that for their children. You can't go to school if you are parked on the roadside. No doctor will come out to you."

Doreen Darby, deputy leader of North Wiltshire Council, says she is not unsympathetic to the needs of Gypsies.

"I know that Gypsies have genuine needs but they cannot bulldoze their way through the English countryside.

"The government is well aware of these problems and we are just one small district council who can't solve a national situation on our own."

Site visit

So what of the site itself? Like many traveller sites it's small, but obvious attempts are being made by the residents to make something of it, including the starting of little gardens or patios.

Enforcement notice
Enforcement could mean eviction

It's in a far better location than many other caravan parks. One of the official sites near Minety is next to Junction 16 of the M4 - the noise is deafening - and campaigners complain these types of locations typify those offered by councils. Not true, says North Wilts, which says it has granted a string of sites over the years.

Back at Minety, little of the development is actually visible, unless you are one of the immediate neighbours.

The Hylands say they can see more than enough. Separated from the caravans by a five acre field, the family say they have spent thousands on security since the arrivals.

Polly Hyland
These people just act like they are privileged and don't bother with the consequences of the law
Polly Hyland

Polly Hyland, 20, is a horse trainer and with her mother, Verina, is one of the lead campaigners who helped raise an 11,000 legal fighting fund.

They say their campaign is not about the people but about the breaking of the law the site represents.

"I've spoken to some of them and they were pleasant enough," says Polly.

"But I'm very paranoid for the horses. I just feel they have been able to get away with this site but when my brother wanted to build a house he was told not to bother because he wouldn't get permission.

"These people just act like they are privileged and don't bother with the consequences of the law."

Blending in?

Few of the Gypsies will talk openly to journalists. But one young man took the BBC on a tour of the site and explained he had not met universal hostility.

"I know that quite a few people in the village don't object but are scared to speak out," he said.

"We just want to blend in and get on with our lives. This is the first time I know that our people have all been registered with doctors and the children have been in school."

The young man said he was personally "ashamed" by the unfinished nature of the site and piles of rubble, saying the council enforcement notice meant that works had been left incomplete.

Given that he runs his own gardening business, he said he was more than happy to plant higher hedging if that were asked for.

"The council haven't got the money to build sites, but we did have the money, but then we're told we can't do anything with it. We feel there's a lot of racism towards us because people don't want to take the time to think this all through."

The Gypsies have been there for 18 months now and they've done nobody any harm. It's clear they're all working and trying to bring up kids
Anonymous local resident

And, his views are indeed shared by a small number of villagers. One resident who quietly objects to the "action group" campaign said wild rumours had branded the Gypsies as thieves and criminals with no evidence to support the allegations.

"The Gypsies have been there for 18 months now and they've done nobody any harm. It's clear they're all working and trying to bring up kids. Any mother who has got her own children in school will see them and know this.

"A story went around that they had drowned two ponies - does anybody here realise how important horses are to Romany culture? It's laughable to say they would harm horses."

The answer, she says, lies in rational dialogue - dialogue as dispassionate as a planning inquiry.

"When I first met one of the men I was gob-smacked. He was better dressed than me and well-spoken and polite.

"If anything, I was the one dressed how people think Gypsies should look. Can they really be as bad as people believe they are?"

  • The inquiry into the Minety development runs until the end of the week before being submitted to John Prescott, as Secretary of State for planning issues, for a final ruling.

    Action against Gypsies is delayed
    02 Nov 04 |  Somerset
    Protesters go to judge's house
    07 Aug 04 |  Wiltshire
    Gypsies stay despite eviction bid
    03 Aug 04 |  Wiltshire

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