Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) is a leading national charity in the UK that works to end racism and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and to protect the right to pursue a nomadic way of life. We chatted with Barry Winchester, the Oak Project Coordinator at FFT, to discuss their latest report on site provisions and the implications and lessons the findings hold for local government.
Context: The ‘Oak Project’ is a partnership aimed at increasing site provision across England in line with the needs of Gypsy and Traveller people, with support from the Oak Foundation.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your role at Friends, Families and Travellers.
I’m Barry Winchester and I’m the Oak Project Coordinator at Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT). I’m a Community Development Practitioner in a variety of contexts and a breadth of organisations. For example, developing a range of responses to issues to do with social and economic exclusion in some of the most deprived areas in the North and South of England and in South America.
Within the wider Oak Project, we have two strands of work; firstly, I see my role as helping develop connections between social housing providers that have a role in creating and maintaining Traveller sites. We also seek to support the collective engagement of Gypsy and Traveller community groups with planning policy in England.
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What is your organisation’s charitable mission, and what type of work do you do to achieve this?
FFT works to end racism and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, and to protect the right to pursue a nomadic way of life.
We have Service Delivery teams conducting Sussex-based outreach alongside a National Helpline, and we offer support, advice and advocacy for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals and families. We are the Secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, as well as a member of the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance. We also provide the secretariat duties to the National Policy Advisory Panel in Socially Provided Traveller Accommodation: a network of Registered Social Housing Providers and stakeholders.
FFT have a series of flagship projects, such as our anti-bullying play Crystal’s Vardo and our inclusive services training, but fundamentally, our work is about supporting individuals and families with the issues that matter most to them, at the same time as working to transform systems and institutions to address the root causes of inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people.
One of your upcoming reports focuses on site provisions for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Why is this an important issue for local government?
Gypsy and Traveller communities have faced a continuous and relentless decimation of safe stopping places throughout the decades, leading to insecure accommodation prospects, devastation of health and educational outcomes and increasing rates of hate and discrimination.
For example, with Gypsy and Traveller communities having life expectancies between 10 and 25 years shorter than the general population, there is a strong case for site provision.
Gypsies and Travellers have a long tradition of living in caravans, with this being as much a part of the cultures of Gypsies and Travellers as travelling itself. Many Gypsies and Travellers may no longer be able to live nomadically, but the desire to live in a caravan remains alive for many. Additionally, there are legal, policy and moral obligations in ensuring that the needs of these excluded communities are addressed.
Therefore, providing well-designed and managed sites for Gypsies and Travellers supports happy and healthy communities and addresses wider determinants of health, education and employment.
Can you give us some background as to what has contributed towards the current situation?
A combination of planning legislation and increasing hostility towards Gypsy and Traveller communities has led to a decrease in available stopping places. Notably, the period from 1960-2023 can be broadly summarised as follows:
- 1960 – The closure of traditional stopping places.
- 1968 – The creation of a statutory duty to provide sites.
- 1994 – The revocation of the statutory duty to provide sites.
- 2006 – The instigation of a regional approach to Gypsy and Traveller site provision.
- 2011 – The revocation of a regional approach to Gypsy and Traveller site provision.
- 2015 – The exclusion of a significant part of the Gypsy and Traveller population from the assessment and provision of sites through the change in definition within the national Planning Policy for Traveller Sites.
- 2022 – A ruling in the Court of Appeal that the definition was tainted with discrimination.
It is broadly understood that the post-1994 planning regime has failed to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers who require public provision through local authorities, and since 2010, the law and policy relating to Gypsies and Travellers has become increasingly more challenging. Local Planning Authorities are able to continuously fail to meet the needs of their communities with no consequence, and even multiple instances of problematic approaches to the assessment and meeting of needs.
Could you overview some of your key findings from this report?
Some key findings include that of the 100 Local Planning Authorities where information was available, 64% had failed to allocate sites as part of the development plan process despite 29 years of government policy and guidance that required this.
Additionally, there were 149 socially provided sites across the 100 local planning authorities, and of these sites, 119 were built before 1994 and only 30 since then (after the statutory duty to provide sites had been revoked).
More broadly, it is evident from the research that the regional approach that existed between 2006-2011 was able to offer benchmarking of Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments, which impacted on need levels. However, no evidence was found of successful regional approaches after this.
In contrast, there were some positive recent examples of good practice in Bristol and Leeds, demonstrating that it is possible for provision to be made even with a less permissive regime that exists at present. It just requires Local Planning Authorities to be willing to address the issues in a sensible and pragmatic manner.
Are there any best practice examples you found during this research?
Generally, good or best practice was found in areas that:
- Gave the communities ownership;
- In Preston, the Local Planning Authority took the step of purchasing an existing site from the county council. This allowed for the residents to form a co-operative to manage the site themselves. Whilst this is not a planning decision and therefore not strictly within the ambit of the research we conducted, it is an important example of good practice that we want to highlight.
- Have strong and active community groups;
- In Bristol, there are a number of active groups who have sought to engage with the council on behalf of both Gypsies and Travellers and van dwellers. They are listed within the council documents, and it is evident that their views have been taken on board.
- Demonstrated strong political leadership;
- In Preston, it would appear that there has been political leadership in the acquisition of the Leighton Street site and the facilitation of co-operative ownership.
- Effectively utilised council resources;
- In some areas, it is clear that significant council resources of both officer time, finance and land have been put into providing accommodation on meanwhile sites and the development of a new site.
There were some additional themes identified that gave rise to Good (or potentially Good) practice. For example, the employment of an effective Gypsy Traveller Liaison Officer was seen as an opportunity to sustain a relationship based on trust, acting as a gateway not only to maintenance issues but in brokering links to economic and social opportunities, helping to address needs beyond the site itself.
What are the implications of these findings for local government?
Through the Local Planning Authority site provision analysis, we have identified a series of essential recommendations that will ultimately work towards tackling the accommodation crisis experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, as well as encourage harmony within local communities.
By producing an evidence base alongside key recommendations for local and national government, local authorities and planning departments, this report provides a strong snapshot of what it would take to ensure Gypsies and Travellers have suitable and safe stopping places. The information provided by the report will also give the opportunity for community groups to further identify issues within their own Planning Authority area.
The damaging knock-on effects of the lack of site provision on the life chances of people from traditionally nomadic communities prove that action must be taken to resolutely address this chronic negligence.
What recommendations do you have for local government to address these issues with site provisions?
The main report features a deep dive into the key recommendations, and we strongly recommend reading the report when it is live (after 21 November!). Some recommendations that may be useful to consider at this stage include:
- Restoration of the PPTS 2012 definition, following the Lisa Smith v The Secretary of State for Levelling Up judgment from the Court of Appeal;
- Guidance on Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments, also following the withdrawal of the 2007 Guidance;
- Engaging with local Gypsy and Traveller civil society as much as possible, from organisations to the National Policy Advisory Panel;
- Direct provision over site allocation by establishing very special circumstances of overriding Green Belt national policy, where there is an identified need for public sites.
If you could get all local governments to do one thing today to help tackle the issues faced by Gypsy and Traveller people, what would that be?
The multiplicity and interconnectedness of the issues and barriers experienced by Gypsy and Traveller communities are unlikely to be solved by a single resolution. However, a significant starting point towards ensuring better access to education, healthcare, and reduction of hate and discrimination would be the reintroduction of the duty to provide sites. Such a duty already exists in Wales.
However, this duty should also exist alongside proper funding measures. With a reasonable approach to both location and funding, this could be the single biggest transformative measure for Gypsies and Travellers in England.
What is coming next at Friends, Families and Travellers, and how can our readers get involved with you?
At Friends, Families and Travellers, we’re constantly seeking to tackle the barriers experienced by Gypsies and Travellers at both a national and local level. Our latest report, Kicking the can down the road: The planning and provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites in England 1960-2023, supported by the Oak Foundation, is due out on the 21st November. To stay up to date, check our website, sign up to our newsletter or give our socials a follow!
For anyone interested in finding out more about providing an inclusive service for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, FFT are hosting a webinar on Wednesday, 13 December 2023 which you can sign up for here.