Leeds GATE

Working to improve the quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers

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Negotiated Stopping wins accolade!

Helen Jones's picture
By Helen Jones |  July 20, 2015 |

Charity Achievement Awards 2015Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange have won the prestigious Lloyds Bank Foundation ‘Championing Change’ award for Yorkshire and Humber :)

The judges have recognised genuine change that Leeds ‘negotiated stopping’ programme has wrought in people’s lives.

Negotiated Stopping is the term, invented by Leeds GATE, which is used to describe a new approach to managing unauthorised -what we call roadside- encampment by Gypsy and Traveller people.  Very simply it means that the local authority no longer resort immediately to legal means to shift unauthorised camps; instead using dialogue and negotiation to enable travelling families to stay, for limited periods of time, on ground where it isn’t causing great inconvenience to anyone.  The families make an agreement with the authority about acceptable behaviour, use of waste disposal, when the camp will leave, and the authority more or less leaves them alone.  It doesn’t sound like rocket science but getting there has not been easy.

Before negotiated stopping in Leeds, camps were managed only punitively by either the council or the police depending on the circumstances, every action was geared up towards removing the camp.  Behaviour of some camp residents was unhelpful, media reporting was regular and negative; and the entire public narrative was about how quickly, or otherwise, these ‘nuisances’ could be removed.

Local newspapers, under banner headlines, published regular reports of conflict between people living on the camps and local ‘settled’ people in nearby housing,  framing the issue as a battle.  Local politicians inclined towards using the problems as a campaigning ‘hobby-horse’, suggesting they were ‘fighting’ the problem on behalf of their constituents, without ever practically resolving the situation, either for their local electorate, or for the families obliged to live in increasingly inappropriate locations.

As continues in too many towns and cities across our country, frankly huge sums of money were being spent to shift families from camp to camp, leaving those families making increasingly desperate choices about where to camp whilst suitable, accessible ground was incrementally blocked off, leading to encampments on playing fields, cricket pitches and the like.  The problems this creates feeds into a wider anti-Gypsy narrative which is sadly prevalent in our society, and leads to further exclusion and race hate, but no solutions.

The work which Leeds GATE has done, largely in creating opportunities for the otherwise unheard communities living roadside to engage in the debate about how the issues can be resolved, has given the local authority tools and confidence to do things differently. Instead of viewing camps as one big problem with only one solution – removal, we have worked together to break things down into individual problems with individual solutions.  Rubbish a problem? – Skips. Toileting? – portaloos.  Anti-social behaviour?  – address with individuals responsible instead of via eviction of the whole group. Vexatious complainants? deal proactively with genuine issues and ignore the rest.

Now, when an unauthorised encampment appears, the local authority officers will engage in dialogue and offer negotiation.  Can the camp stay where it is?  Will the camp residents make use of skips and portaloos? Could the camp move to a more suitable location?  Benefits of this approach have been rapid and tangible.  The city council in Leeds calculates a cost saving of £2000 per week on expenditure before the policy change, over £250,000 and counting since this new approach was adopted.

Some cost benefits to the council are fairly easy to calculate – reduced legal and staff costs, reduced environmental impact – but there are greater benefits which are not so straightforward to estimate.  The roadside families, both local families and those passing through Leeds, have significantly improved access to healthcare and education. The decrease in the type of stress caused by continuous court and police eviction has an significant, although difficult to quantify, effect on quality of life.  Similarly we don’t calculate a cost ‘saving’ from reducing effects in housed communities when un-managed, un-negotiated, encampment takes place.  Just because we don’t calculate these savings doesn’t mean we can’t be fairly sure of them.

How can we assess if the new policy is working apart from the cost savings identified by the local authority?  A search of local newspaper articles is very illustrative – from the regular screaming headlines of a few years ago, there have been zero in the past year.  Nothing.  Incredibly all this agreement and negotiation has made the subject of Gypsy camps a bore, not worth reporting on!

Some of the families living roadside in Leeds are not ‘passing through’, they are Leeds families who have been homeless due to us not having enough socially rentable pitches (or privately provided ones, come to that).  During the period of negotiated stopping the council has been able to identify a piece of ground suitable for longer term occupation.  Planning permission has been granted to develop a new site for eight of the homeless Leeds families.

The fact that this has happened with no objections, no ‘anti’ group of objectors being formed and no negative reporting in the press is, nationally, very unusual.  We think this is because negotiated stopping has taken the sting out of the whole subject.  We have been able to demonstrate that roadside families are rarely the careless brutes of mythology and stereotype.  In fact like most people, they are fairly ordinary, rational individuals who are happy to negotiate and compromise.

It’s hard to imagine that the local authority will go back to the bad old days of ‘shift em, shift em’. It never was very logical to throw money into ‘eviction and clean up’.  We can see increasing confidence that another way is possible and desirable.  The benefits for local families needing a pitch are evident. Families passing through Leeds are also becoming familiar with the idea that dialogue will bring benefits that make travelling, and the unauthorised encampment that involves, much less contentious and stressful.

If it’s good for Leeds, is there really any reason it wouldn’t be good for everywhere?

So what needs to change?  We all do.  Poor behaviour by some residents of unauthorised encampments has got to stop.  What we find is that it does stop once individuals can be held responsible for their own actions, and enabling families to stop for longer periods of time, with appropriate facilities, makes that possible.

The common approach of politicians, supposedly battling on behalf of their electorate, making promises that cannot be fulfilled and demonising difference has got to stop.  I can not think of one example where a politician can claim responsibility for winning this supposed battle, except here in Leeds where courageous, collaborative leadership has delivered genuine improvement for the settled electorate and mobile families alike.

Civil society groups like ours need to avoid battling too.  We need to allow for genuine expressions of upset from settled people and whilst not buying into negative narratives, we need to offer genuine workable solutions to real problems, not just present a lazy “you’re racist” stick to beat people with. We need to create opportunities for people to negotiate their way around difference together.

Local settled people have a big part to play also.  Unauthorised encampment is not a problem just by the fact of its existence.  Settled people need to identify what the problems really are and don’t imagine that they have the right to expect rapid removal as the only possible solution. They also could make a big difference by sending their local politicians a different message about what they want; real problems solved rather than election-time grandstanding.

Change is messy.  It involves trying things that may not work, and are unpopular, and everyone has to let go of beliefs and habits which no longer serve us.  We can’t keep doing the same things and expecting a different result.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to the Lloyds Bank Foundation for this award, and also a huge thank you to everyone who has joined us in creating this simple, but nationally significant, change. You can read more about all the Yorkshire and Humber Lloyds Bank Foundation award winners here and look out for the national award ceremony on 8th October.

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