This June has seen travellers temporarily pitching their smart white caravans on green areas in and round Sutton Coldfield resulting in a huge number of protests via the local NextDoor network – some of them hateful and others downright racist.
“Beware and lock up your valuables travellers are back.”
“Oh dear! It’s that time of year again: Travellers are on the move around the country – some to find more work picking berries, hops, potatoes and other crops for farmers, others to comb urban areas for materials that they can recycle for profit. Yet others are just getting away for some fresh air and new sights or to meet up again with their own travelling kinfolk after being ‘housed-up’ for the winter. And once again we hear the almost hysterical protests at travellers (probably in transit) who pitch their caravans on parkland in Royal Sutton Coldfield. How dare they!
Those who protest so loudly should instead be asking why our City Council is so dilatory in creating decently equipped permanent and transit sites for travellers. There are none at present – they have been years in the planning stage it seems. Actually, there is one tiny site, used by an Irish traveller family, adjacent to the motorway at Castle Vale. Who in their right mind would want to spend time at such a site given other choices?
I read that Labour councillor Rob Pocock has demanded action, saying “What we need is a law to prevent travellers getting onto the land.” He says nothing about the apathetic approach of the city council towards provision of sites. This seems at odds with Jeremy Corbyn’s views on travellers, though his party has little to say in its manifesto other than “We will end racism and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and protect the right to lead a nomadic way of life”. The Green party on the other hand openly recognises that “The travelling people have ancient, valuable and valid lifestyles and cultures, and have a right to preserve these. Legislation concerning Travellers should aim to ensure equal rights and community obligations for Travellers as citizens, without imposing unwanted conformity to the values and lifestyle of the dominant culture”. It goes further – for it would insist that the government is “obliged to enforce the requirement upon County Councils to provide sufficient sites for Travellers in their areas, and this requirement would apply to both residential and transit sites”.
At present the general response seems to be “Move them on! Who cares where, as long as it is not to somewhere near me”. But where can travellers, on the move at this time of year, pitch their caravans for a few nights without being hassled by angry locals and the police? It’s hardly surprising if, given such hostile attention, travellers choose to leave their rubbish behind for others to clear up after they’ve been forcibly moved on. This alone simply underlines the need for stopover sites equipped with rubbish disposal units as well running water, toilet facilities and electricity – but there’s not a single such site in the whole vast area of Birmingham. As for providing sites for longer stay travellers, they would be a lot cheaper than having to find housing for them and in any case travellers have for centuries valued the mobility of their small homes, be they tents, pony and wagon or shiny white caravans.
Despite the fact that some traveller clans arrived in Britain around 1000 years ago their lifestyle remains so different from that of us Suttonians. Anyone wanting to try to understand more the mindset of travellers could do no better than to read Scottish traveller Betsy Whyte’s two enthralling autobiographies (The Yellow on the Broom and Red Rowans and Wild Honey). Her final sentence in her second book is her reaction as a young mother to being offered accommodation in a run-down fisherman’s cottage south of Montrose. “How pleasant , I thought, to have this little place of our own. This’ll do fine until we get ourselves gathered together. Then maybe we can go off to the country again?”
The Sutton Observer’s publication of this letter produced a response which demanded a further answer. Since this time the answer was not published, we include it here for good measure and for some useful factual information:
“Maureen Brown’s remark (SO July 27) that traveller sites should not be made available in residential areas does not surprise me, even if it reminds me of those dark decades of apartheid in South Africa, for Britain’s settled population has for hundreds of years reacted with fear and dislike towards people who are simply different from themselves. More recently it seems to have been one of the prime motivations behind that ill-informed vote to leave the EU.
There’s a long history of discrimination against travellers. Queen Elizabeth 1 acted against ‘blackamoors [i.e. Romanies and other ‘coloured’ people] and Egyptians’, declaring that the former ‘shall with all speed be avoided and discharged out of her Majesty’ dominions (Mayall 1988) and enacted the death penalty for all gypsies who had not already left the country. Despite a mass execution of gypsies in York in 1596 many were able to survive because of their nomadism. However, like most Irish, Scottish, Gypsy and ‘New’ travellers, they are here to stay in Britain and we must learn how best to coexist.
Maureen’s question “Where” with regard to permanent sites is a valid one but there are various issues to consider. How far away from a primary and secondary school should such a site be located? Most travellers want to see their children receiving a formal education whenever work and travelling allows and in any case the law requires a specific number of attendances per year. Will there be a water supply, toilet facilities and regular rubbish collection? How far might one have to go to find medical help?
With regard to the travellers in transit who visited Webster Way, Walmley, Maureen demanded “They should take their rubbish to the tip”. Is this reasonable to ask when one is being hounded by the police to get off an ‘illegal’ site early the next morning and find another site to stay on until in turn being evicted from there, and furthermore, get on with earning one’s living that day? The present situation is a vicious circle that currently shows little sign of being broken given the views of many Conservatives. Before the 1987 election in Bradford party officials were seen handing out car stickers bearing the message ‘Keep the gypsies out – Vote Conservative’ and it is clear from a recent government review that conditions for Travellers are intended to get even tougher.
The only suitable land for a permanent site in the Sutton area might be in the green belt, but as we all know, there exists a whole raft of restrictive legislation concerning any kind of development on green belt land .
Another possibility – which will surely bring forth of cries of “Never!” – could be an acre of land just within boundary of Royal Sutton’s historic 2400 acre park. ‘One acre’ was a figure approved by the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions which wishfully presumed that such an area could accommodate up to 7 or 8 traveller families with their vehicles. A third possibility would be to identify an acre or more just outside either of the two different sets of proposed developments in the Walmley/Peddimore green belt area.
The travelling communities don’t choose to cause aggravation with the settled populace and would much rather keep to themselves except for when having to deal with temporary employers and for other forms of commercial activity.
Much of the aggravation we read about in the local press would seem to be initiated by us. For instance, the Birmingham Mail, reported (July 11, 2017) that when travellers arrived to spend one or more nights at King George V playing fields a ‘brave local hero’ Stevie illegally invaded a traveller’s vehicle, interfered with the handbrake, then impersonated a police officer and later faked injury to prevent any further incursion onto the fields. It’s no wonder the Travellers there were annoyed. In spite of this some shook Stevie by the hand as they were leaving. Where they and their families spent the following night is anyone’s guess.”