Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange: A solution to illegal encampments

Helen Jones.
Helen Jones.
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Helen Jones, the chief executive of Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange (Gate), offers a solution to the continuing problem of illegal encampments.

Leeds Gate works to improve the quality of life for Gipsies and Travellers in Leeds and West Yorkshire.

Coun Les Carter (ex-Leeds City Council Executive Board member for Neighbourhoods and Environment) and others believe that making proper provision for Travellers will increase the number of unauthorised encampments in Leeds.

Unfortunately they weren’t present at a recent N&E Scrutiny enquiry when Mr Moloney, one of the ‘roadside’ residents of Leeds, told the inquiry that he felt that it was, in fact, the presence on unauthorised encampments of himself and the other families who call Leeds home, that was making it easier for other non-resident families to come to Leeds and ‘blend in’ with them.

I don’t believe that one ten-pitch site will entirely solve the problem of unauthorised camps, although it certainly represents a great leap in the right direction, but I do believe that it won’t make the problems any worse and at no cost to the city coffers. Haven’t we all heard enough of Mr Carter’s tired, ill founded rhetoric which has cost Leeds a headline amount of £2m since 2003? At that rate two ten pitch sites could have been built (paid for from government grant as the proposed new one will be). By now we could have been seeing a truly significant drop in the number of unauthorised camps.

The really sad part is that £2m is undoubtedly a significant underestimate of the total cost to the people of Leeds (Gipsies and Travellers and everyone else). On all sides this situation is stressful. It is stressful when you can’t have control over your own life. It is stressful when unknown people can impose themselves into your life. It is stressful when there is a lack of respect and understanding leading to lack of care for each other and abuse.

Stress directly affects our health which, when it fails, costs the public purse and our own quality of life. Gipsies and Travellers in Leeds are paying the price with their health (average life expectancy of 50). How many other residents of the city have experienced raised blood pressure, heart palpitations or anxiety due to the disruption to their home neighbourhood during an unexpected encampment by people they don’t know? I’d guess it might be quite a few but this is one of those hidden costs, uncalculated, and unconsidered, during Mr Carter’s stewardship at Neighbourhoods and Environment.

So, some readers will be asking, how stressful is it going to be for anyone living in Leeds houses that finds, not only that a group of unknown (but unpleasant by repute) group of people, are going to move in next door – but that they will be staying forever? With the best will in the world that could cause anyone pause for thought. So what can we do?

The council’s pragmatic approach, as suggested in a report to the executive on the subject of a proposed new site, is to put the site nowhere near any houses. Hmm, well you can see the logic can’t you?

Access

And maybe that would be OK if there is still reasonable access to schools, shops and the amenities we all need. On the other hand, if a place is deemed not fit for housing doesn’t that mean it’s not fit for homes? We need to be cautious, pragmatic but cautious. We might also need to be just a little bit brave. Who knows what might happen if we made an effort to get to know the ‘strangers in our midst’. In our experience people can be very surprised by how much they have in common, and at how respect and even friendship can grow when strangers get used to each other.

As I have said before I don’t believe that a ten-pitch site, by itself will solve unauthorised camps. There are some camps that we just can’t plan, or be expected to provide for, for example because of an event, such as a horse fair, or a funeral. Are we just going to carry on as before with all that entails, including rubbish not being properly disposed of, or shall we try something different? How about dialogue, negotiation and compromise? That is how disputes between neighbours are successfully sorted out the world over. Why would Leeds be any different to that?

I believe that we can reach temporary solutions that will reduce stress until such a time as they aren’t needed any more. There are pieces of ground in Leeds that could be used for ‘negotiated stopping’ without the council needing to make great expenditure. Suggestions that they can’t do that because of planning regulations are bogus.

They are the planning authority, they can choose not to enforce against themselves, and I doubt it would be the first time. Such temporary negotiated stopping has been successfully used in other areas – Cheshire, Bristol and Fenland being prime examples. Fenland District council, since it adopted this approach, holds no budget for enforcement because it doesn’t need one any more.

Avonmouth Police haven’t carried out a costly ‘section 61’ enforcement for a number of years, because they don’t need to.Come on Ms Jones (I hear some readers cry) wake up and see what is really going on. Some of those people on the camps are just thugs. Well maybe so. Some of every nationality and ethnicity on the planet are thugs as far as I know. What are we currently doing about those on the camps? Well very little it would seem apart from constant eviction and vilification, denying basic services to whole families; giving those among them more inclined towards respect and compromises, absolutely no incentive to try.

But there are people living on the camps who are inclined to try. That is why they put themselves through the very difficult experience of attending the scrutiny inquiry panel, why they have worked to build up and sustain Leeds Gate, why they continue to offer dialogue to almost anyone who will listen.

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