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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 00:00 GMT
'Best chance' to end Gypsy crisis
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Community affairs

Travellers site
Unauthorised encampments are potentially avoidable, say MPs
Councils have the "best chance" ever to solve a nationwide crisis in Gypsy sites and conflicts with settled people, according to campaigners.

New duties forcing councils to help travellers find sites may solve local tensions, the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition conference heard.

But travellers and politicians say more work needs to be done to create dialogue with settled people.

The call came after a year of high tension over unauthorised encampments.

Under new measures, councils must include the needs of Gypsies and travellers in their housing plans.

They must also work out how they are going to meet any need for caravan sites, be it through helping travellers buy sites or inviting social landlords to build them.

The measures came in after a long campaign to force councils to acknowledge expert evidence that there is a national shortage of caravan sites.

Campaigners claim this national shortage of sites leads to illegal encampments because travellers have nowhere else to stop.

A number of court battles are continuing over major unauthorised encampments around the country. The largest current planned eviction at Dale Farm near Basildon is expected to cost at least 1m.

Hope and expectation

Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat peer who has championed traveller causes, told the annual Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition conference that councils would soon have no excuse not to start solving the problems which had led to significant local tensions.

There has to be opportunities for people to come together and talk - it may be that the problems are too massive or intractable, but if you are journeying together, the least you can create a dialogue
Rev Michael Hore, Cottenham
"This is a time of hope and expectation," said Lord Avebury.

"At long last we have a formula that may solve the problem of accommodation. And once that is solved, we will be able to attack the other social problems that flow from it.

"For the first time ever we have councils collaborating with each other on what needs to be done so they can move forward together, in agreement, on the number of sites needed. "

Len Smith, of the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition, said is was in "everyone's interests" for more traveller sites to be built.

"The government is introducing new planning regulations - this conference is assessing these new duties and making sure all the relevant stakeholders are aware of what they have to do to ensure the new system works fairly and the sites that are desperately needed are actually created."

The Reverend Michael Hore, Rector of Cottenham, said the experience of his Cambridgeshire village was both a warning and a sign of hope.

Tensions rose in 2003 after a nearby caravan site expanded with the arrival of many more Irish Travellers.

While tensions remain high, Rev Hore said there had been new dialogue between villagers and the travellers which was improving the situation.

"There were some awful things said that descended into racism," he said. "But there has to be opportunities for people to come together and talk to each other about the problems.

"This is what can break down barriers. It may be that the problems are too massive or intractable, but if you are journeying together, the least you can create a dialogue."

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