An unpalatable truth? “People don’t want Traveller Sites”
That statement “people don’t want Traveller Sites” seems to get thrown around far too often. It is reductive, includes questionable assumptions and misdirects us from addressing Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs sensibly. I heard it again when on local news the other week, reminding me that I think this phrase, or version of, it was posed almost every time I have engaged with the media. That is telling and demonstrates why and where the debate is consistently going wrong.
Now it is noticeable that almost everyone is at pains to state that they don’t agree with this position but that it represents the reality, the ‘unpalatable truth’. “Might not be fair but” or “sadly that’s what people think” caveating the assertion that sites are unavoidably contentious and lack of progress understandable. Firstly, regardless of whether it is indeed true, why should this position be consistently be repeated unchallenged? Even if ‘not your view’ its constant restating provides unwarranted merit.
Is it actually true? Okay, I am not naïve and recognise that there is some degree of anxiety, if not outright hostility in some cases, towards the prospect of new sites. Few applications are submitted without disproportionate opposition and media discussions about them occur with largely negative opinions expressed. Whether that makes it gospel that ‘nobody’ wants them or ‘everyone is opposed’ is a further step deserves questioning. Perhaps more important is to ask what that position actually means.
From our experience what many people mean when they say they do not want to a Traveller site is that they do not want a poorly managed unauthorised encampment. These are clearly two very different things but the issues are repeatedly conflated. Ironically, the lack of formal permanent sites, whether public or private, simply increases the volume and complexity of roadside camps. Furthermore, once sites are built, previous concerns and complaints largely dry up, both because they are easier to manage and because the reality is usually less scary than prior perceptions.
The danger of this over simplistic viewpoint is that the debate is wrongly focused just on one aspect of public opinion, never mind that this might be exaggerated or misplaced. Widespread opposition is used to explain away lack of progress on assessing need for, let alone providing, desperately needed sites. It allows politicians and planners to similarly obstruct or oppose applications, again noting that it might not be their view but that they cannot ignore the views of the public. Repeat nationwide and it is easy to understand why this accommodation need is so consistently unmet.
There is a responsibility on all involved in the debate about site provision to ask more probing questions. Not just ‘is everyone really against sites?’ but ‘what are people actually opposed to?’ and ‘how do we address the objections?’ Yes let’s acknowledge the reality that Gypsy and Traveller sites are not universally welcome. Equally though, we cannot allow this to excuse ongoing lack of progress. Rather, we have to explore constructive ways to understand the degree and nature of public concern. However achieved, we need to change the debate.
Some have been trying to do just that, to change the debate, and the JRF report https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/providing-gypsy-and-traveller-sites-contentious-spaces is an excellent example of this. Let’s keep talking about this meaningfully.
You can read the most recent JRF/DeMontford University report Managing and Delivering Gypsy and Traveller sites: Negotiating Conflict here