“Our children haven’t got a chance of getting a pitch. They haven’t got a chance at being able to live their culture,” says Marian Mahoney, an Irish Traveller and grandmother. Mahoney had lived on the same site on Eleanor Street in Tower Hamlets for 37 years until she and her family were cleared out to make room for Crossrail three years ago.
They were moved, along with 19 other families, to a different site in the same area – a rarity in London today, where provision for Gypsies and Travellers has dwindled since legal protections for their sites were removed in 1994. Accessing appropriate housing in the capital is compounded by a fundamental problem: no one knows quite how many of them there are.
“When they’re planning, they don’t include us,” Mahoney says. “I feel that we’re just left out of everything. At the moment there’s no future for us – it’s like we don’t exist.”
First recorded in the UK in the 16th century, Romany Gypsies did not achieve legal status as an ethnic minority until 1989, and Irish Travellers until 2000. The 2011 census was the first to include Gypsy and Traveller as an ethnic category and recorded only 8,196 in London, far fewer than the 30,000 previously estimated by demographic experts. The last intensive London-wide study was conducted by the Fordham Institute in 2008, and put the number at 17,664.
Campaigners have attributed the gulf between estimates and records to a reluctance to self-identify, for fear of discrimination – but the effect has been to make the community invisible. A 2016 report on race inequality in Britain by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that “the lack of robust data is [a] key challenge to achieving race equality”.
Uncertainty over the community’s size can be “quite convenient” for the local authorities legally obliged to provide pitches and sites, says Ilinca Diaconescu, policy officer at London Gypsies and Travellers (LGT). “There hasn’t really been any centralised monitoring of what has been delivered or what is needed in different boroughs.”
In recent years, a “weak methodology” and a poor understanding of what it means to be a Gypsy or Traveller have allowed local authorities to minimise the numbers they need to worry about, says Diaconescu. In seeking to assess the needs of the community, for instance, consultants often fail to contact those who have already been forced into brick and mortar due to a lack of pitches. This creates a vicious cycle in which fewer people are accounted for and, in turn, provided for.
Natalie Bennett, a Romani Gypsy who campaigns on national housing issues, is adamant that current approaches to the community amount to “a form of ethnic cleansing”. Many councils and public sector workers, she says, still do not “recognise the fact that we are an ethnic minority and an indigenous group, and that our characteristics and culture need to be preserved”.
Last year LGT launched a project to map the city’s community with the help of the charity Mapping for Change. This first stage has pulled together diverse data sets in an attempt to reflect the extent of the housing crisis for Gypsies and Travellers, an issue covered by more than 50% of the calls dealt with by LGT.
LGT hopes the new maps will force London’s councils and the Greater London Authority (GLA) to recognise the huge gaps in official understandings of the community and their needs. They show that while 768 pitches were needed across the capital in the last decade, only 10 new pitches have been provided, while 15% of existing sites have been shut down.
They also reveal where provision has plummeted to nothing since the removal of the legal protections in 1994. Since then, 15% of the local authority stock has been lost. In boroughs such as Enfield and Lewisham, for example, large sites were closed when they fell inside local regeneration schemes in the late 90s, leading to bitter legal disputes and the eviction of families from pitches they had been on for decades.
Recent changes in the legal status of Gypsies and Travellers pose a new threat to the community’s efforts to preserve their way of life. The 2016 Housing and Planning Act removed councils’ legal obligation to carry out accommodation needs assessments for the community, previously enshrined in 2004’s Housing Act. It also scrapped specific protections for those with a “cultural tradition of nomadism or of living in a caravan”, building on a 2015 planning policy revision which changed the definition of Gypsies and Travellers to include only those who are travelling permanently.
This change was designed to prevent the community getting planning permission on green belt land, a politically contentious issue in some UK cities. But in London where, unusually, the majority of pitches are on council-owned land, the redefinition had the effect of wiping out local authorities’ responsibility to provide pitches overnight. “In some boroughs, there’d be 12 pitches required, and that dropped to zero with no actual change in the makeup of the population,” explains Louise Francis, co-founder of Mapping for Change.
“It was the government imposing their misunderstanding of what Gypsies and Travellers are on the whole community,” says Diaconescu. “The definition really didn’t show any recognition of what it is to be a Gypsy or Traveller in 2015. In our day and age, particularly in places like London, where there aren’t any vacant pitches or stopping places, it’s really impossible to lead that kind of lifestyle, even if you wanted to or had the opportunity to travel for work.”
Mahoney used to travel, but settled in Tower Hamlets in 1980 so that her four children could go to school; she now has 12 grandchildren. The changes in legislation were a factor in her decision, she says. “They made us come off the roads with their laws – they took that life away from us. It’s up to them to provide the tools that help us adapt to the 21st century, and still be able to live our culture.”
The EHRC is trying to challenge the redefinition on a number of different grounds, including that it is discriminatory to people who cannot travel due to disability or long-term illness, but so far they have been unsuccessful.
The mapping project, however, has succeeded in getting the GLA to recognise the size and needs of the community: the maps were included in a paper written alongside the new London Plan released last month. The plan lays out a far wider definition of the community to include those now living in brick and mortar and those who have ceased to travel. It calls on boroughs to carry out new needs assessments with stronger methodology and cites the higher figure of 30,000 Gypsies and Travellers living in the capital. If approved by central government after consultation, the scheme would be a “very significant” step forward for the community, says Diaconescu.
The next phase of the mapping project will tackle discrimination directly, by inviting Gypsies and Travellers to share their experiences in an attempt to break the silence over what Mahoney calls “the very last prejudice we allow in this country”.
“Local authorities are quite complacent when it comes to prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers,” says Bennett, describing her experience in setting up a site in Nottinghamshire. “When we applied for our planning permission on our land we had people writing in saying, ‘How are we going to stop these people from breeding?’ And that was allowed to go up on the council’s website.”
Using the interactive map, members of the community will be able to compare experiences with different organisations, and to share information on service provision. “It helps people to mobilise when they can see that it’s not just them who’s being discriminated against or treated badly,” says Diaconescu. The organisations expect to launch a beta version in April.
Later this year, a final set of maps will chart the history and culture of the community within the capital, including historical stopping places and small businesses.
Their aim is to counter the prevailing narrative that these groups are outsiders, or just a problem for local authorities. “It’s important because there’s this idea that Gypsies and Travellers aren’t really a part of the city,” says Diaconescu. “But really they have been for generations.”
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