I write knowing full well I may be mercilessly castigated for what I am about to convey. Nonetheless, having wrestled with my conscience in similar circumstances many times previously, I can no longer hold my peace, seeing the vexed question of provision of living space for Travellers and Gypsies has hit the local media once more.
This scenario recurs again and again, and so far as I can see will continue to do so whilst persons carrying the responsibility, who ought to understand the facts, continue to abdicate from their principles, and are afraid of making publicly clear what they know to be the real issues involved.
Vexation of spirit it clearly is: “furious”, “angered”, “jeered”, “racist”, “contention” and “fight tooth & nail” are all quoted in your ‘Comet’ article of 4th. November as having been used at a legal and democratically called public meeting of local residents at Arlesey. What on earth were they discussing? Surely not decent accommodation for British people?: In those terms?
As a lifelong Christian I know that contention comes from the implacable enemy of us all.
On the outside the argument seemed to be about numbers: whether four pitches or ten. In reality, the entrenched mood might be deduced from the individual who called out that the Authorities should not even have approved four. And why not for Goodness’ sake?.
Now I see no advantage in quoting statistics here, nor indeed figures of any kind. Quotas proposed have all been arrived at by the proper constitutional means, and in principle are not really up for discussion at this late stage. I am concerned about principle and about humanity.
‘Gypsy’, although not very specific, really is a term of racial nomenclature, even if it should more properly be known as ‘Romany.’ Therefore discussing them is to that extent ‘racial’. If any persons at the Arlesey meeting did attempt to victimise anyone on the basis of the classification “gypsy” it was indeed a racist offence. I applaud the courage of those Romany four who faced a bigoted mob, seeking justice for their families. We need to recognise that Gypsies have been a de facto component of society in these islands for some seven hundred years, and are a legally recognized segment of British citizenry. Under law they nowadays have exactly the same basic human rights as any of us.
Travellers, including Gypsies in many instances, were and are an essential element of the workforce on the British social scene. Seasonal, e.g. agricultural, work necessitates a temporary influx of migrant workers at particular seasons, even if at other times the local economy could not support them. Then there are the travelling shows: country fairs, funfairs and circuses etc. whose very nature designates their workers as travellers: it could not be otherwise.
Furthermore, and our modern recycling ethic points to a need, there was trade to be followed and business to be done on a casual basis by people willing to go where the work was, economically unable to remain and to sustain themselves in any permanent location. Mobile homes for these activities are essential.
No doubt Society today is undergoing change just as it always has. Probably the proportion of Britons who follow the travelling life is much smaller now than in former times. For some reason – possibly just simple weight of numbers- the settled population has to a notable degree lost its ability to understand or harmonise with any other lifestyle, no matter whether it has persisted over centuries before the comparatively recent upsurge of owner-occupier mentality.
Nomadic culture is as old as the hills, and to a definite degree is genetically implanted. An important consideration is that our overall population has itself multiplied immensely over the last three or four generations, and we are being bunched ever closer and closer together, whereas in a certain sense, there appear to be fewer and fewer of life’s ‘goodies’ to go around. Also I believe that there is no question but we have –many of us- become ever so much more self-centered than earlier generations; and this during a period in which personal finances for many have improved immensely.
Certiainly when I was growing up in Wood Green, north London, there was –so far as I could personally verify by my own observation- only one solitary black man in the whole world. Such is the rate at which things are changing.
I have lived for an extended period cheek-by-jowl with the hell of a large illegal travellers’ encampment when I lived in Harrow. I stress that it was an illegal encampment on private urban industrial land. I will come back to that factor in a moment. The point is that I really know what the popular perceptions of travellers are likely to be. In every cultural grouping there are those who respect and abide by the law just as there will be an element which will flout the law and act as a law unto itself. Were that not so, there would not be so much burglary, personal violence, antisocial behaviour etc as is very, very common even among we “decent” settled people.
Between 2004 and 2008, when I was a local Borough Councillor I stood for election –by virtue of my qualification as a sitting Councillor- to serve on the Housing & Sustainable Communities Panel of the East or England Regional Assembly. During that time there was already continual strife among NIMBYs and otherwise genuinely concerned community residents and their elected Representatives in relation to the establishment of more permanent sites where a certain number of pitches could be made available (in appropriate locations) for Gypsies and Travellers. As one concerned myself, I took a keen interest in this subject which was part of the permanent Agenda of that Panel. I learned a huge amount through my work there. I studied housing needs, and service provision, and saw documentaries about existing legal permanent sites where Travelling people came and went, and where decent facilities were available, used and valued. I learned that there was Regulation, and that limits applied, and where rentals were charged –which included the equivalent of Council Tax to support access to humanitarian services, education etc. I see one villager quoted in the Comet article as saying that “They don’t pay Council Tax” (presumable adding silently: ‘like I have to do’). That is nonsense: On a legal site where charges are levied tenants DO effectively pay towards Council Tax.
Sadly, where the problem lies is that there are woefully too few such sites where the Tax could be levied. It is precisely because the population at large is so niggardly about the establishment of such permanent sites anywhere near where they live, or anywhere near where it is only rational that they should be sited, given the opportunities for work and trade which is all that the travellers need and seek for; I say, so niggardly are those persons that the Romanies and Travellers simply have little other option but to settle from time to time on –admittedly- illegal sites. We already know, if we are honest with ourselves, what kind of experiences we are condemning these, our fellow citizens, to endure. What a way to be forced to live!
On the television news a few nights ago I was staggered to watch some pratt mouthing off with the words: “It’s disgusting that they want to set up one of those sites (he said pitches), in some field here in the middle of the country.!” Where else would you suggest, numbskull?
I met and got into conference with Romanies, I learned what it is like to be a member of a disparaged, persecuted and ostracised fragment of British Society. Yes, a genuine portion of British Society: native Englishmen and English women and children. I learned the seriously limited availability of legal pitches where travelling people might put up for a while. I saw film footage of the bulldozing of illegal encampments and the heart-rending effects that has upon those thus treated. I learned about travellers and Romanies who set themselves up on land which they themselves owned but for which the appropriate Planning Permission had not been forthcoming. Among their spokespersons I saw noble people, with genuine culture and artistic talents which they were directing to the search for tolerance and acceptance, who have established their own media including a Romany radio station, hoping against hope to find a spark of humanity in the hearts of their fellow citizens of this once proud nation. We wouldn’t treat dogs in the way that we treat them.
Okay, Okay, so there are rogues and villains among them. Yes, when they descend on an area there is sometimes a mini crime-wave. Yes there is dirt and filth and there is fly-tipping and noise etc. etc. And perhaps they don’t pay Road Fund on their vehicles! Oh really? It’s eye-opening to find just how many untaxed vehicles are identified during each of the Stevenage Community Action Days. And as for squalid: well you don’t have to look further than some of our metropolitan ‘sink estates’ to find worse. But I put it to your readers that whilst we are denying travelling people simple basic facilities to live in a half-way decent fashion, driving them to illegal sites where they have no legal protection, prejudicially assuming that they don’t know how to wash or to keep themselves clean etc. etc then I say that as long as we go on in that same way, we can have no basis for such self-righteous attitudes as we hear displayed by so-called decent people, except we provide the only rational alternative kinds of opportunity to prove themselves. Have you ever looked inside a Romany’s van? Put some of OUR homes to shame, I can tell you!
All I have to go on is the Comet article, so my conclusions about the Arlesy meeting will not be exhaustive nor totally accurate. However, reading between the lines I received the impression that those Elected Representatives who attended were in the main trying to do “the right thing” in a difficult atmosphere, but were inept in that they couldn’t put the case nor frame their arguments in terms that the general public could accept. And as for those Councillors who simply failed to show: well, shame on them. Kentucky Fried comes to mind.
So, what about all these locality groups of residents all over the country who object to travelers pitches? In many areas it is a reflex to object to any and every change proposed in their vicinity. First of all, they clearly do not yet understand the vast difference there is between those legal, rented, officially maintained sites/pitches and the infamous illegal encampments where the foundation facilities are simply non-existent, and which are set up largely because those taking up residence there have been boycotted at every turn. Since by definition they are travelling people who have no settled home, and whose working life doesn’t allow them to qualify for what you and I might regard as ordinary rights to be housed, we settled people treat them with superstitious hatred like social lepers.
To close, I refer back to my Christian roots, and conclude by saying that well into my seventies as I am, I have not yet discovered any official record of any precept that teaches ’Only behave decently to people who behave decently to you!’ We in this free land must stop treating portions of our own number in ways that are almost reminiscent of Nazi politics in pre-war Germany.
Why can’t we be noble and courageous and charitable? Why can’t we give these outcasts a dignified chance to prove themselves? Surely our compatriots are worth taking a chance for? Like the Christian life itself, it may be a gamble whether or not you will suffer for it in this life, but in the end the rewards for giving it a serious ‘go’ will massively outweigh any earthly inconvenience.
What do you think?
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