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"Tackling Gypsy Camps Head On" – A personal blog by Helen Jones, Leeds GATE CEO

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By Helen Jones |  July 24, 2013 |

Helen JonesI've been called unpleasant names a few times in my life, not always relating to my work at Leeds GATE.   I suppose I have to admit that I might have the sort of personality that attracts opprobrium. I'm pretty good usually at taking it on the chin, at least I think so.

Here’s a little something from one of my regular critics.

“I truly believe it is absolutely deplorable that you give refuge and consideration to anti-social behaviours and role-models as is associated with Gypsys and Travellers. Do you never consider the emotional and destructive impact these people have on those really decent and hard-working people ... You cannot have one iota of decency running through your veins.”

At least in some parts of our community, there is a belief that I do not give consideration to settled people who experience considerable nuisance and distress as a consequence of unauthorised encampment by Gypsies and Travellers.  Perhaps if you are already reading this you don’t need reassurance that I do indeed spend quite a lot of time giving consideration to the people my correspondent describes, and generally speaking I agree, as really decent.

That an uncounted number of Gypsies and Travellers act in ways that are either violent, anti-social, criminal or otherwise objectionable cannot be disputed.  I won’t tire my readers by pointing out in any great detail the numbers of people from other ethnic groups who also behave in violent, anti-social or criminal ways. I don’t believe these traits of behaviour from the majority of any community and I make no apologies for that belief.

I don’t believe that Gypsies and Travellers should be allowed to do anything they like, wherever they like, regardless.  I do believe that settled people, as all people, are entitled to respect and regard.  Although it’s very hard for my detractors to take, I know, I genuinely believe that a win/win scenario is possible and we call it negotiated stopping.

I really do consider the emotional and destructive impact that unauthorised camps can have on ‘decent and hard-working families’.  But I know that unauthorised encampment of itself doesn’t need be destructive, or even intrusive.  I believe that poor behaviour on unauthorised encampments can be interrupted and that proportionate and effective consequences can be brought to bear on perpetrators of anti-social behaviour and crime.

I think that the more we can identify areas where it can be okay for Gypsy and Traveller families to stay for short and long periods, the easier  it will be to make sure that matters of hygiene can be properly dealt with, to everyone’s satisfaction.  We can make sure that rubbish is disposed of properly.  We can stop fly tipping.  We can stop young men doing ‘donuts’ in their transit vans.  We can work to make sure that dogs behave so that people needn’t feel threatened by them.

There is honestly one magic ingredient that has been missing, and I don’t mind sharing with you what that ingredient is....wait for it....you aren’t expecting this.....the Police!!  Poor behaviour can, and should, be managed by the appropriate authorities, specifically the Police.  I believe that negotiated stopping, rather than in some way ‘letting people off the hook’, is in fact a way of enabling, perhaps even obliging, the Police to do their job properly.

How many times do we hear that a return to ‘neighbourhood policing’ is the method by which local crime and anti social behaviour can be controlled.  Local PCSOs and Constables are often best placed to issue the right warning at the right time, the right penalty notice.  Yet we do not apply this to Gypsy and Traveller camps.

How have we landed up in a situation where Gypsies and Travellers feel utterly disengaged from our settled communities?  It was not always so.  How can it be that at least some, if not all, of the people who live in areas that experience regular encampments feel resentful and believe themselves to be abused? It was not always so.

I believe that much of the practical cause of this is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.  It was this Act, ostensibly brought in to deal with illegal raves, which gave the Police a relatively easy power to remove groups of six or more vehicles from ground they consider sensitive.  My belief is that it is at that point that a ‘neighbourhood’ policing approach to Gypsies and Travellers came finally to an end. Rather than taking the time to get to know Gypsies and Travellers stopping in their area, police policy settled on removal as the default response.  Perhaps you might understand, or see the logic of this approach.  But it does have a myriad of consequences.  Not least that it disables officers from neighbourhood style policing.

Since 1994 significant resources have been spent by police services on ‘convoying’ groups of families out of their particular patch.  Over the years the burden of this activity has led Police forces to share or shift responsibility to act to Local Authorities.  But the damage has been done. No more the warning, or summons, here about a tyre, there about a dog or something more serious, just the whole family being rapidly and repeatedly shifted.  No time to enforce against an environmental infringement, or to get to know a battered wife.

The words of another correspondent will surprise some, and I hope, inspire others. 

“The site has been tidy, remarkably quiet and as they leave there appears to be only a small amount of litter. There has been virtually no anti-social behaviour. Last evening a would-be ‘boy racer’ drove around the perimeter of the camp a few times doing hand-brake turns on the grass but without incident.  If it hadn’t been for the toilet observation I’d have been happy to have them here as long as they wanted to be here. I spotted a school bus collecting children smartly dressed in spotless white shirts and red sweaters at 08.00 am on a few occasions and the children appeared far better behaved than many living in permanent homes in this part of Leeds. ....Seeing this group at close quarters for 2 weeks has made me envious of their close knit community. I’ve got a handful of good friends but these people really seem to care for one another in more practical ways than most people who live in houses.”

The difficulties we experience with our neighbours are not all about crime and ‘anti social behaviour’. Lower down the scale of irritation, there are differences between our communities.   We have different traditions, beliefs and cultures which inform our behaviour.  Sometimes those differences make neighbourliness difficult.  But, I am certain, not impossible. Look around; is your culture just like that of your settled neighbours, even those with whom you share ethnicity?  How much do you accommodate differences in the people who live, in houses, around you?

So I ask the question, do you want to tackle living alongside Gypsy Camps head on? Or do you just want to call me names.

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