It’s no secret that poverty, especially in the current cost of living crisis, affects a wide range of communities. The Gypsy and Traveller community is no exception. While researching for my latest LGIU briefing, –––– (available only to LGIU members or Global Local subscribers), I found that the effect of poverty on the Gypsy and Travellers community can be seen in rates of declining health and wellbeing and increasing mortality that are significantly worse than for the general population. Whilst there are a number of ways local authorities can help tackle poverty in the travelling community, the one I’ve focused on is how local authorities can provide and improve their accommodation offer to ensure they are safer and more culturally appropriate.
Why does accommodation matter so much?
Within the travelling community, a number of linked factors are at play, such as fuel poverty, access to services, employment and education, to name a few. However, accommodation is a key area that local authorities could and should intervene in to improve their lives and livelihoods. It is an area that could significantly improve the other factors and consequently improve health, wellbeing and mortality rates.
Having worked as both a local authority lawyer and a third sector housing lawyer, I found that it was rare to be approached for advice or information by members of the travelling community. Similarly, whilst I evicted numerous unlawful encampments, I was only aware of one family engaging their own legal representation. Questions, therefore have to be asked about why this might be.
- Firstly, the legislation does not lend itself to allowing a defence in respect of unauthorised encampments.
- Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, it suggests a reticence to seek advice and an anticipation that eviction is inevitable.
However, this acceptance does not address the lack of suitable and culturally appropriate accommodation, for which local authorities have key responsibilities.
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How does a lack of suitable, secure accommodation worsen the situation?
A quick Google search of ‘unauthorised encampment’ quickly throws up a whole host of articles about local authorities improving response times to evict the travelling community from their land. Very little can be found, however, in the way of good practice examples to improve the lives of Gypsies and Travellers in terms of a culturally appropriate accommodation offer. In fact, I’d suggest that quite the opposite can be said, with many local authorities explaining how no suitable land can be found in their area for permanent or transit sites.
Frequent evictions, unsuitable accommodation or a lack of culturally appropriate accommodation detrimentally affect Gypsies and Travellers’ lives. It can be impossible to find permanent employment, more difficult for children to have consistent education and can restrict access to basic services such as a bank account. Jobs regarded as ‘traditional’ occupations for the travelling community such as scrap metal collection have now become more regulated, and others require vocational qualifications, which perpetuates exclusion.
What can local authorities do?
New sites and stopping places could and should be developed to allow access to culturally appropriate accommodation. Gypsy, Traveller and Travelling Show People Accommodation Assessments should be carried out by local authorities to assess the current and future planning needs, helping to prepare and implement local plan policies and provisions of new Gypsy and Traveller Pitches and Travelling Show people plots.
The National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers has produced a Communications Guide for local authorities, registered providers and other traveller site providers in England. This is a useful guide to use when thinking about developing a permanent or transit site/temporary stopping place for these communities.
In Ireland, there was a 48% underspend in traveller accommodation budget by local authorities in 2018 and some even drew down no funding at all. Again, this is clearly an area that could be improved. Funding across the UK and Ireland could be spent not only to develop new sites but improve the existing sites. For example, local authorities could install mains gas to ensure that Gypsies and Travellers aren’t further impacted by the extortionate cost of gas bottles. Also, some grant funding for winter warmth excludes the travelling community, particularly where they have no fixed address. Local authorities should address this and ensure better accessibility to funding so that the most vulnerable in these communities are not forgotten.
Poverty is a widespread and deep-rooted issue in the travelling community and there are many ways that local authorities could help improve the situation. I believe the best place to start is by tackling accommodation. Suitable, culturally appropriate accommodation can be the key to improving (and in some cases even resolving) other serious issues which exacerbate poverty, such as:
- Secure employment;
- Consistent education;
- Improved mental health;
- Access to health and financial services.
Whilst communities are often understandably vocal about the inappropriateness of unauthorised encampments, there is a much bigger issue at play. Unauthorised encampments are not only unsuitable for local communities, but they are wholly unsuitable for the travelling community themselves. Local authorities should, in essence, seek to engage in dialogue with travelling communities and the local community to better address cultural misunderstandings and improve their accommodation offer for the greater good of everyone.