Gypsies and Irish Travellers are dealing with discrimination and disadvantage – especially in housing provision. Nigel de Noronha explains why an accurate recording of their numbers in the census would be a good place to start to improve their situation.
The 2011 census showed that white Gypsies and Irish Travellers are the ethnic group most commonly experiencing housing deprivation – by far. What the census didn’t show is the conditions in which the majority of Gypsies and Travellers are accommodated. Less than 1% of these communities who live in caravans recorded their ethnic minority on the census form. Gypsies and Irish Travellers have well-founded fears of persecution.
Romani and Roma Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised as distinct ethnic minorities in the UK. They have the worst health outcomes of any ethnic group in the UK, with low life expectancy and high levels of infant and maternal mortality. A healthcare needs assessment in Leeds in 2004 found that average life expectancy was 50 years. They are significantly over-represented in the prison population and their children are less likely to achieve in education. At the root of these issues is our failure to meet their accommodation needs.
The 2011 census was the first to recognise white Gypsy and Irish Travellers as a distinct ethnic category. It identified the population of this group as 58,000, accommodated in just over 20,000 households. There were less than a hundred white Gypsy and Irish Traveller households reported as living in caravans.
Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessments were conducted in 2007 to identify future needs for site planning purposes. This exercise identified a population of 120,000 requiring site-based accommodation. As the majority of Gypsy and Irish Travellers live in houses or flats, widely accepted estimates suggest there are 300,000 Gypsy and Irish Travellers in Britain. Gypsy and Traveller organisations suggest that both the accommodation needs assessment and the Office for National Statistics’ enumeration processes for the census fail to engage with the community effectively, or build sufficient trust to complete the ethnic monitoring question – and thus under-represent their population.
The policy of the outgoing government has been extremely hostile to the accommodation needs of these groups. The planning frameworks introduced by New Labour in 2004 provided a regional planning tier to co-ordinate spatial policies. These included a requirement on local authorities to prepare plans for permanent and transit sites for Gypsy and Irish Traveller communities. Regional bodies set targets for provision for individual local authorities.
The election of the coalition Government saw a change of direction. It systematically attacked the rights of Gypsies and Irish Travellers. David Cameron offered his support to Basildon Council in its eviction proceedings at Dale Farm – home to 400 people for a decade. The eviction was seen by many Gypsies and Travellers as ethnic cleansing. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, used the Localism Act to wage a personal crusade against Gypsies and Travellers. The requirement to produce an accommodation needs assessment was withdrawn; local authorities were given the freedom to set their own targets for provision of sites; and retrospective planning permission – the main way sites had been approved previously – was removed. The Government ignored feedback from Gypsy and Traveller groups that the revised policy would “make it harder to gain planning permission for sites and lead to a decrease in provision with consequent impacts on health and education”.
Earlier this year Eric Pickles was found to have contravened the Equality Act 2010 and to have indirectly discriminated against Gypsy and Traveller claimants. He had taken over all planning appeals for permanent and transit sites in relation to green belt sites, in contrast to the freedom allowed to housing applications. He also suggested that any Gypsy or Traveller who lives in a fixed residence will permanently lose their status as a Gypsy or Traveller. The proposal to introduce what is effectively a conditional ethnic minority status for Gypsies and Irish Travellers suggests that he is not interested in addressing the inequalities that these groups experience.
Failure by the last Government to build trust and inclusion into its policies on accommodation, health, education and employment condemned many Gypsies and Travellers to the continuation of their roles on the margins of British society.
The last word goes to Joseph P. Jones, Chair of the Gypsy Council: “There will never be a true account of numbers of the Gypsy and Traveller population, until we have a level playing field. The far right media has made sure of that, with the help of minister Pickles and his local friends in Essex. All the time that local and national councillors, MPs and media continue to use us as cannon fodder for their own gain, we will continue hiding in the woods, to escape the barrage of dogmatisation, vilification and continued explosion from the wider community. Our children will miss every opportunity, to gain any form of education, or prospects of real employment.”
This blog was developed from research for a briefing on housing deprivation for black and minority ethnic groups to be published by the Race Equality Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).