Traveller families: ‘We just want to live on the land we legally own’

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By Cherry Wilson
BBC News Online

Members of the families who are fighting to stay living on the land they own

“Summer has been lovely. The kids have had the paddling pool out and I can nip next door to see Gemma for a cup of tea,” Charlotte Smith tells me.

“And even though I don’t see Gemma every day, I know that we’ve got people here and we’ll keep an eye on one another.”

Mum-of-four Charlotte and five other families bought a plot of land together to give them a place to call home in June 2017.

After years of living in caravans on the roadside or on other travellers’ sites, it was somewhere that offered the “best of both worlds”.

It allowed them to keep hold of their Traveller traditions but also gave the families more stability.

image captionCharlotte and five other families bought the plot of land together three years ago

“Just because you’ve got somewhere to call home it doesn’t stop you travelling,” Charlotte says. “We can shut up the gates and go, but we’ve got somewhere to come back to.”

But the local council has served an injunction and told them they need to leave the land.

The families have been fighting back for the last two-and-a-half years though – and are now taking their appeal to the High Court.

“We need a home, we need a place to call home,” Charlotte tells me.

image captionCharlotte says the children who live here have “their freedom but in a safe environment”

The families’ land is in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, and when I go to visit it’s a lovely sunny day.

Charlotte lives on plot five which has two caravans where the family sleep, a large wooden shed which is the living room plus a separate building for the bathroom.

At the bottom of the garden is a Wendy house with pink windows where her children and the neighbour’s kids play together.

Three of Charlotte’s children go to the local school and the families say they want to be “part of the community”.

When I arrive, the kids are all playing together outside – running between each plot and sitting on the outdoor trampolines.

image captionGypsy, Roma and some Traveller people are protected against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010

Mum-of-two Gemma Lamb, 34, has the plot next door to Charlotte and when she talks about what it means to live here, I can hear the emotion in her voice.

Her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 which has left him with health problems and means they want to spend less time living on the roadside.

“This is the best of both worlds,” she tells me. “We can keep our tradition that we’ve grown up knowing generations back.

“My granny and granddad lived in a wagon on the side of the road. We’re used to being outside and just having the open space, that’s what we like.

“Put us in a house and close us in, that’s just not the norm to us.”

image captionGemma says living here offers the “best of both worlds”

Both Charlotte and Gemma grew up on the road and it’s an important part of their identity – but they also want a more stable place to live.

The children’s education is a big factor in them wanting to stay here.

“I do like them to go to school and have an education and mix with friends and be a part of the community,” Charlotte says.

Gemma admits her older daughter missed out on parts of her schooling when they were moving around more often.

But since settling here, she’s found a place in the local college and it’s something she’s “really looking forward to”.

image caption“These children deserve security, education and health and at the minute they’re getting that here,” Charlotte’s mum-in-law told me
It was in February 2018 that Newark and Sherwood District Council

issued the families with an enforcement notice telling them they needed to leave.

It said they didn’t get planning permission to use the land as a place to live and it’s at risk of flooding so it’s unsuitable for family life.

I say to Charlotte there are some people who are bound to say, “Well you didn’t get planning permission first.”

Most people can’t just put an extension on their home or build a new house on land without getting approval – so why should it be different for them?

image captionGypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are among the most disadvantaged people in the country, according to research

“My answer to them is try living at the side of the road,” she says. “To have no home, it leaves you with no choice. It’s very easy for people to say when they’re living comfortably.

“I can see what they’re saying, but we have a reason behind it. We’re asking to be able to be part of the community at no expense to the council.”

Charlotte and her neighbours appealed against the council’s enforcement notice to the Planning Inspectorate.

In April 2019, inspector Chris Preston ruled the families shouldn’t be given planning permission to allow them to live there.

He said the reasons were due to the risk of flooding, the noise from nearby traffic and the “harmful effect” the caravans had on the openness of the land.

He concluded those issues outweighed the personal circumstances of the families and the benefits of the children having a “settled base”.

image captionCharlotte says having a washing machine is a “luxury” and she wouldn’t be able to take it if she has to leave

Charlotte and Gemma feel they’ve not been treated fairly.

There is a large travellers’ site in Newark called Tolney Lane – and they claim the local council wants all travellers to go and live on there.

“If there was a certain part of the town where you had Asian people and I was Asian and I said, ‘Well I want to live this side of the town’ and they said, ‘No you’ve got to go on that side of town because that’s where all the ones that are your colour are’ – that’s not fair is it?” Gemma says. “It’s racism at the end of the day.”

I put this to the council who told me that Tolney Lane is a “longstanding location for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation”.

“In exercising its duties the council takes its equalities requirements extremely seriously and wishes to see the accommodation requirements of its Gypsy and Traveller communities met in a culturally and environmentally appropriate way,” it added.

image captionThere are around 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in the UK, according to the charity Friends, Families and Travellers
The government requires local authorities in England to regularly assess how many sites they need in order to serve their Gypsy and Traveller communities and come up with a five-year plan on how they will deliver them.

If they fail to come up with one, it says this should “be a significant material consideration” when deciding whether to grant temporary planning permission to a traveller site.

Newark and Sherwood District Council currently doesn’t have an up-to-date plan. It told me its proposals will be published and consulted on next year.

And it’s admitted it doesn’t have any alternative traveller sites for the six families to relocate to if they are kicked off their own land.

I did ask the council where it expects the families to go if they can’t stay and it said it wasn’t “appropriate to comment on the individual circumstances” of those involved.

“The council will liaise with those affected to understand circumstances and assist if appropriate,” it added.

image captionGemma says living in caravans might seem strange to others, but it’s normal to Traveller families

The families are now taking their fight to the High Court and a hearing is due to be held in October. They’ve been allowed to challenge the Planning Inspectorate’s decision on three claims:

  • The inspector failed to take into account the “general need for additional traveller sites”
  • He failed to treat the local council’s lack of a five-year plan as a “significant material consideration”
  • He was wrong to reduce “the weight he attributed to the personal circumstances of the site residents and the best interests of the children living on the site”

Charlotte says her “stomach sinks” if she thinks about losing the case and being forced to leave the place they call home.

She tells me being allowed to stay on the land would be like “winning the lottery”.

image captionCharlotte started a Change.org petition to highlight the families’ fight to stay on their land

“We’ve been here two and a half years now, we’ve never caused one problem,” she adds.

“I know there’s a stigma with travellers. A lot of people say ‘Oh, yeah, travellers rocked up and they did this and they were doing that’ – not us.

“There’s good and bad in everybody. And everybody deserves a chance.”

Newark and Sherwood District Council said it is respectful of its “large and very long-established Gypsy and Traveller communities” and remained “committed to finding future appropriate sites”.

Councillor Roger Blaney, chairman of the planning committee, added: “The council has called for sites on a number of occasions since 2013, including actively writing to all landowners who have previously expressed an interest in developing land.

“The council is again currently seeking sites and would welcome the submission of any suitable sites for assessment. The council has not ruled out purchasing a site to meet its future needs.”

The council said it would encourage Traveller families “to pursue a number of avenues” before purchasing and occupying a site without having planning permission first.

“This will include exploring whether existing Gypsy and Traveller sites are available and considering any new sites which may be promoted to the council for allocation.

“For any unauthorised site the council will continue to undertake a welfare assessment and liaise with the individual families involved, offering any support on a case-by-case basis.”

Cherry Wilson is a proud northerner who recently moved back to Stockport, Greater Manchester, where she grew up.

She studied journalism in Sheffield and was the first in her family to go to university. Her passion is telling the stories of the people and communities behind the headlines, exploring issues that matter to them. She has a great love for cups of tea, jerk chicken, chips and gravy and Coronation Street.

Related Topics

  • Travellers

  • Newark on Trent



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