A public meeting held in Leeds to protest at a proposed traveller site attracted hundreds of people. Jayne Dawson reports on how the issue has created a huge row in one community.
Public meetings can be quiet, dry affairs attended only by the truly determined and the officials who have no choice in the matter - but not always.
At such a meeting in Leeds this week so many people attended that more than a hundred were left outside - not to be deterred they had a meeting of sorts of their own, on the pavement where they stood.
The main event was being held in Morley Town Hall, a huge venue which swallowed up around 400 of the anxious interested parties. But still there was a large crowd outside.
Few issues in Leeds create this kind of response. Usually, people are caught up in their own individual concerns and, even if they grumble about events happening around them, they do not take that extra step of turning out for a meeting.
But there is one issue that is guaranteed to provoke a response, and that is the location of permanent traveller sites in the city.
And just recently a planning application has been submitted to Leeds City council that has galvanised the local community like very little before.
The application is for some 55 traveller pitches on Valley Road, near Morley Railway station. It is a site that was previously the home of a now unused oil recycling plant.
The proposed development is extensive and as well as the pitches would also include a play area, management cabin and toilet and shower facilities, as well as a grazing paddock and a 40-space car park.
As news quickly spread around the town about the application, protestors were quick to point out that a travellers’ camp already existed in the area at Cottingley Springs, off Gelderd Road, less than two miles away from the Valley Road site.
But the bigger picture is that the Leeds City Council, like all councils, has a duty to provide accommodation and travellers parks and is looking to provide 40 additional pitches over the next 15 years.
There are two types of traveller site - permanent and transit sites and Cottingley Springs is the only permanent site in the city so far.
It has 41 pitches and a pitch can have two or three caravans, so potentially there can be more than 100 caravans at the site, and the council have applied to extend it by a further 12 pitches.
Because of objections, this application has gone to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles for a decision.
There are also a number of transit sites with a small number of pitches in Hunslet, Otley and Burmantofts.
But Morley is already a town with a sense of grievance at the number of planning applications that seem to come its way - for homes as well as traveller sites.
Recent housing applications at sites in the town, such as Owlers Farm and Daisy Hill, have met with strong opposition from some residents, who say the town does not have the infrastructure to cope with more housing.
But this latest traveller site application, in the name of Mr Billy Elam, was submitted without fanfare and came as a surprise to local councillors.
Since then there has been what can only be described as a furore, and opposition to it has been united across the political spectrum.
Leeds City Council reacted by putting a stop notice on the demolition of the old refinery on May 2, which means that work should cease while the whole situation is thrashed out - though it is not clear whether work has stopped.
The Labour councillor for the area, Neil Dawson, was among the first to protest. He said the site was unsuitable for such a use and asked the applicant to withdraw the application while discussions took place.
Meanwhile, the Morley Borough Independent party organised the meeting that was held on Monday night.
Coun Robert Finnigan said: “It’s contributing nothing to resolving the overall traveller issue, it will result in the same sort of tensions as Cottingley Springs. It’s entirely unacceptable from our point of view.”
The meeting on Monday night was attended by members of the Morley Independent party, town councillors and local police, and there was only one opinion in the room - opposition.
The Independents immediately made it their target to achieve a thousand objections to the plan, something that they will seemingly have little trouble achieving.
Mark Seward, the Labour candidate for Morley South in the upcoming local elections addressed those outside who were locked out of the meeting and read to them a statement from the MP for the area, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who is also opposing the plan.
Those at the meeting said that the location of a travellers site, next to Morley’s busy train station, was not suitable for an open traveller site
And there was anger that there had been no consultation with local councillors or residents on the issue before the formal planning application was submitted
Ed Balls had joined in the row early on saying: “Whilst it is important to have adequate provision for travellers’ sites across the city, I have always argued that sites must be in the right places.”
There is however always another side to every story, and the opposition to the planning application has already drawn an angry response from the Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange Welfare Group.
Chief executive Helen Jones said: “In the unlikely event that this application was granted the site would not make a good living environment.
“But the fact that politicians are using it to pander to people’s fears is really unfortunate. It is sad that such anti-gypsy feeling is being promoted.
In his statement to the public meeting Ed Balls said: “I’ve been contacted by a great many local residents since the planning application was made.
“I fully understand local people’s anger and frustration with the developer and I believe this is clearly the wrong place for a traveller site.”
After the meeting Coun Dawson said: ‘I am pleased to see a united front in Morley to stop the plan for a travellers site at Morley station.
“My main priority now is stop further potentially damaging work at the site and that the stop notice served on the owner by the council is now legally enforced.”
FUTURE FOR TRAVELLER SITES IN LEEDS
Leeds City Council is complying with and following national policy guidelines on travellers set out by the government, but the feeling is that the current approach is costly and not working.
It has spent almost £2million in four years moving travellers on when they have pitched illegally.
Their policy is therefore to create enough official sites and pitches over the next 15 years. The idea is to first extend the Cottingley Springs site by 12 pitches, but because of objections Secretary of State Eric Pickles is looking at this application – although the council has successfully applied for government funding for the extension.
The initial view was that 40 extra pitches would be enough for the next 15 years but this may need to be increased.