Bel Parnell-Berry – Traveller Identities in a Modern Landscape
RESEARCH DIARY: 10 APRIL
So much for Fenland’s flawless provision plan.
My train has been delayed by 2 hours and I’m on the platform at Peterborough station. I can see what I assume to be an unauthorised encampment in an old disused car park. A dozen or so white caravans are sprawled across it, each with a tall orange cylinder propped up outside. People are coming and going in cars and vans, children are running around playfully – being called by their mothers. Black bin-bags rustle in the breeze.
I want to capture this, but realise with horror that I’ve packed my camera in my suitcase. I throw my case on the ground, rip it open and start pulling things out to find the little black case. I begin clicking, trying not to zoom in too much – I don’t want to invade the families’ privacy, but I do want the people who will see my photos to see the conditions clearly. The sparse, gritty environment; the hard concrete almost glimmering in the heat; the dull industrial backdrop. When I think I have intruded enough, I look away and see a lady waiting on a bench wink at me. I half smile back, do up my suitcase and make my way to the train. She says: ‘Not a pretty picture is it?’
A friend recently told me about a dispute his parents had with the local authority over the building of a new house along their street. His parents enjoyed a view over the meadow, which the new home would obscure, so they asked if it could be built a few metres back. Their request was contested, the local authority claiming that if the house was built any further back, the old barn across the meadow would no longer be visible from the village. Thus it was agreed the house should be built in the original location as planned and my friend’s parents made peace with the idea that they would lose their view of the meadow. However, shortly after the completion of the new house, the local authority had the old barn torn down.
My friend told me this story in response to one of my own, from my fieldwork days, about a caravan-dwelling Romani family who were not granted planning permission to extend the living space on their own property due to fears they would ruin the rural view from a nearby village. I can understand how this friend found the two incidents relatable, but they are not exactly the same. In the barn dispute, the new neighbours were always going to be allowed to live in a location of their choosing. The same cannot be said for Traveller Gypsies.
While conducting my fieldwork between 2009 and 2011 on caravan site policy implementation in the English countryside, I found that other caravan-dwelling families had also been denied permission to build homes for themselves in ‘rural’ settings, often given the explanation that their developments would create an obstruction to the land or to a view of the countryside.
Popular thinking about Gypsies might conjure romantic images of sunny days and bow-topped caravans drawn by horses, ladies with wavy dark hair, golden jewellery and full skirts, reading cards or making stew. These women might have tall, swarthy husbands seasonally picking fruit or dancing and singing in the streets, or, even better, in a clearing in the woods. Jennifer Lopez, in her 2001 music video for ‘Ain’t it Funy’, uses all of these tropes:
These fantasies are further elaborated in novels, such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which features the enigmatic Gypsy Esmeralda and has been adapted numerous times for film. Additionally, this Disneyfication of Roma life has been exploited as real history for the tourism industry. You can now rent traditional wagons from companies like Gypsy Caravan Holiday Breaks, offering an experience ‘lost to the modern world. Tucked away in the tranquility of the beautiful Somerset countryside’. Similar ‘childhood fantasies’ are offered ‘in the middle of lovely Monmouthshire countryside’ as well as ‘in the peaceful hills of South Shropshire’.
Yet caravan-dwelling lifestyles in Britain, Ireland and other parts of Western Europe are not as hedonistic as they are made to seem. These are harsh lives, built upon a long history of oppression and violence, exclusion and expulsion, although the romanticism of caravan-dwelling – in particular, Roma – groups serves to obscure this history, while at the same time demonizing and ridiculing families in the present-day. Take, for instance, Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding:
Caravan site allocation in the UK is one of the most contentious areas of planning policymaking. While town and village growth is acceptable to a certain degree, it is directly related to who is believed to belong to the community. Gypsies and Travellers are viewed as outsiders, making their inclusion in local communities through the provision of caravan-sites an emotive topic. Moreover, as rural villages are forced to become towns, there is a worry that so-called natural characteristics of the landscape – such as meadows – will be lost. The provision of caravan sites on the fringes of already stretched towns and villages troubles those who feel their new neighbours are invading a threatened and scarce pleasure. This anxiety is also evident in distant cities whereby the policymakers (such as the former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and David Cameron), who are charged with deciding how land should be constructed as either urban or rural. Planning officials talk about ‘challenges’ and ‘complexities’ associated with this sensitive area of policymaking, especially when they are being pushed to find solutions. The great preoccupations over the last 10 years within caravan policy documents have been the management of unauthorised developments and encampments, and the preservation of green-belt land. According to numerous planning strategies, green-belt land can be used for caravan sites when there is no other local alternative, although this has not necessarily deterred certain practitioners from preventing access. In 2011, 80 families were evicted from Dale Farm (an unauthorised development in Essex) by the local authority, after 10 years of living there. The local authority argued the land was green-belt. Eric Pickles was found to be illegally discriminating against Gypsies and Travellers by the High Court earlier this year due to his use of the ‘calling in’ policy in 2013, which concerned precisely this – denying planning permission for sites on green belt land. Most notably, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) recommended last year that the official definition of Travellers and Gypsies should be changed to only reflect those with regular nomadic habits. Current policies include families who have settled within an area permanently (for various personal reasons) in their strategies. Although this plan has recently been abandoned by the government, one cannot help but ponder the implications of such an amendment to caravan site provision. This change in policy would have excluded any and all permanently settled caravan-dwelling families of Romani and Pavee descent from future site provision considerations.
The announcement of these policy plans was originally published in September 2014, causing a serious backlash from within Traveller Gypsy communities as well as among activists. However, the reality is that certain political representatives have been calling for this shift for several years. Caroline Spelman served as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs between 2010 and 2012. During this period she commented on disputes between house-dwellers and caravan-dwelling Traveller Gyspies, stating at a conference in her West Midlands constituency: ‘We need more authorised sites. The travelling community should be indeed travelling. The problem with our authorised sites is people come and they stay, so it fills up the site’. So, on the one hand Spelman seems to acknowledge the need for more site provision, while on the other she blames this need on caravan-dwelling families not being mobile enough.
Incidentally, protesters in the village of Meriden (in Spelman’s constituency) demonstrated against the establishment of a new caravan site, with the Daily Express’s Fiona Webster reporting:
Patsy is part of a group of villagers trying to stop a gypsy development on a beautiful meadow in the once peaceful community of Meriden […] ‘There seems to be one law for them and another for us,’ says Patsy […] ‘We also handed in a letter of protest signed by West Midlands MEP Nikki Sinclaire.’ Ms Sinclaire said: ‘It is obvious to everyone that in this instance the settled community of Meriden has had its right to a private and family life fundamentally breached by this unethical attempt at development. Not only that but the planning system and laws put in place leave people feeling powerless and frustrated.’
This illustrates for readers a typically ‘beautiful’ and ‘peaceful’ rural image, which is under threat of being destroyed by wandering undesirables. The caravan-site in the village, especially in the meadow, is clearly considered to be a deviation from the natural order, from the nostalgic, bucolic vision of how things should remain, or revert, in that ‘beautiful meadow in the once peaceful community’.
Deviating from this vision of how things ‘should’ be is an ‘unethical development’, and the rights of the house-dwellers are being ‘breached’. Noticeably absent from Webster’s article is any discussion about the rights or experiences of the caravan-dwelling families who were evicted from their unauthorised encampment after a near three-year stand-off with the villagers of Meriden. Instead, the demonstrators are framed as the vulnerable victims: ‘[T]his used to be a beautiful, peaceful part of the village. Now they’re taking that away from us’. Similarly, in an article about Dale Farm the following year, by Amanda Platell of the Daily Mail, attention is drawn to the apparent strain Traveller Gypsy children have put on rural infrastructures:
Today, the 110-strong school register is made up almost entirely of travellers, with the exception of three pupils […] The tragedy is that while the gipsy children have been given their precious ‘human right’ to an education, the children of Basildon tax- payers have scandalously been denied their right to one.
Platell’s statements show the NIMBYism inherent in the protests against the settlement of caravan-dwellers. Where planning officials and politicians may argue for fairness in the planning system, they either fail or do not wish to engage with the possibility of active social-exclusion tactics being targeted at Traveller Gypsies. We could ask ourselves, as environmentally minded as we might each be, when do we stop caring about the fate of families and their human rights in order to preserve a piece of land?
Throughout her article, Webster echoes the protesters’ outrage, openly identifying with their mission. ‘It’s not hard to see why the protesters feel so protective. Meriden is set against the rolling countryside in the exact centre of England […]’, she says. Of course, if local authorities provided sufficient and acceptable caravan-site spaces for their Traveller Gypsy populations and/or if families were able to secure planning permission for private sites without facing discrimination, there would not be a need for such disputes within communities. I couldn’t help feeling as I read these articles that the writers and protesters could not have visited one of these local authority caravan sites recently or spent time with families living in unauthorised sites.
The first thing one notices when one enters an English caravan site is the concrete. They are (in my experience) overwhelmingly grey. Many are hidden away down long and seemingly inaccessible lanes, behind rubbish tips, abandoned car yards or sewage sites, or amongst the hedgerows of busy bypasses.
The first time I visited a local authority caravan site was in the summer of 2007, when I was an undergraduate. I had chosen to investigate something close to home and something I could relate to personally for my dissertation. The local caravan-dwelling community of the small rural town where I grew up provoked reactions of racism, nostalgia and ignorance from the majority population. I was made aware of the local site, but warned by friends that no ‘real Gypsies’ lived there because they did not exist anymore, and that it would be dangerous to go on my own. I began walking towards the site on the narrow, uneven footpath along a busy bypass. On the other side of the road I could see a new housing estate backing onto the grounds of one of the local primary schools. The high fences and lack of footpath denied all access to the estate and school from the bypass. Walking on my side of the road was the only safe way to journey by foot along the bypass at all, and I would notice later on another trip that one could only walk as far as the site anyway, meaning a pedestrian cannot reach it from any other direction.
On my right, there was a shallow ditch, strewn with litter, and through the bushes I could make out that I was passing a mass scrap-yard and wondered if it just happened to be next to a ‘Traveller’ caravan site, or if the residents themselves were responsible for the pile of metal waste. I still remember my knees almost giving way as I turned the corner and saw the first caravans. Before me were two rows of six modestly sized plots, enclosed by a cul-de-sac of tall, thick bushes, hiding the site from peripheral view. The plots each had small, redbrick huts off to one side. I would learn later that they provide families with shower and toilet facilities. Every plot was occupied, several holding up to three caravans and several cars were parked in the road, which I remember made the place seem overpopulated, and there were a few trucks parked along the rough concrete road that lay between the two rows of plots. At the end of the site was a large grass field with horses. It seemed to me, on that first trip, a rather bleak place leading to what must be a grim existence.
Sometime later I paid a visit to a friend and research contact at her privately owned caravan site. As we discussed the specific plight of families living on unauthorised developments in the countryside, she took me across the road to a clearing in the hedgerows where there were three small caravan plots, tucked away behind tall yet frail wooden fences. Two of the caravans could be found to the right as you entered along a small road, and the third faced you straight ahead. There was rubbish in the ditch running along the left side of the clearing and the small road was – like the lane leading to the caravan sites – a bumpy mess due to pot-holes. I noticed large puddles along the road and on the ground within the plots, but paid little attention to them. At some point as we were leaving, my friend asked me if I could see anything that indicated the caravans were “plumbed” into the land. I could not. She then asked me where I thought all the water went when someone went to the toilet or emptied the kitchen sink. Slowly, my eyes traced the puddles of murky water near my feet and around the base of the caravan in front of me. The image of grey liquid floating like a moat around the trailer, where children probably traipsed through it carelessly, every day, immediately disgusted me. I asked my friend then and many times since why the family did not have plumbing for their caravans. She explains patiently each time that you need permanent planning permission and the council had only granted temporary permission. This means the family can receive electricity and heating, but cannot build a sewage system. Planning permission in these instances is often withheld because the changes to the land for plumbing to be installed would have to be permanent. It would be near-impossible to return the land to green belt afterwards. On top of this, a family would have more reason to remain in a community rather than moving on later.
The Traveller Gypsy community in the UK is viewed as deliberately attempting to blight community life by destroying green belt and flouting planning laws through the occupation of unauthorised developments and encampments. However, unauthorised developments and encampments are in many cases a direct result of insufficient allocations by the government for caravan-dwellers. The sad irony is that while an estimated 3-4000 caravans are occupied on unauthorized land, making their occupants effectively homeless, we continue to believe in a false and romanticized historical concept of the rural nomad. Simultaneously, there is a political preoccupation with a perceived Traveller Gypsy threat to green belt, conservation projects and to the community at large, contributing towards the construction of an identity very different from the romantic image. Worse still, land allocation and accommodation standards and conditions reflect the fears and concerns for land and nature conservation, thereby becoming the basis upon which planning policies are built and the quality of life for certain members of our society is decided. The pastoralists point to the ugliness of caravan sites, low school attendance and high levels of illness within Traveller Gypsy communities as proof of a backward way of life that will infect and infest their precious country living. Conveniently, it is very rarely publicly addressed that Travellers’ access to stable homes, education, medical care and a whole host of other basic public services, is being directly blocked by rural NIMBYism.
Now the train is pulling away slowly from the platform and I can see the site stretches further back. There are more caravans than I had thought. I will call Thomas in the morning and ask about the families, ask where they came from and where they will go. I will ask if he is still so confident that Fenland has the best provision in the country. And if this is indeed the best provision, we really do have cause for concern.
Bel Parnell-Berry received her PhD from the University of Hull in 2013 for a thesis on caravan site policy and local authority ethical decision-making in England. A somewhat reluctant academic, Bel is passionate about accommodation policy, land rights and race relations within Europe. She currently lives with her husband in the Netherlands and when she isn’t analysing policy she is travelling, cooking or drinking cava with her mum.