The tension between travellers and the community

7 February 2012

In a question to the Scottish Parliament last August, Scottish Labour member Drew Smith enquired what guidance had been issued to local authorities regarding the Gypsy and Traveller community using ‘unauthorised’ sites in order to camp, and how ‘unauthorised site’ should be defined. The question was topical, with the high profile eviction of hundreds of travellers from a site called Dale Farm in Essex making headlines and the campaign of peaceful civil disobedience by residents who resisted any attempt to remove them. The issue of their human rights has again reared its head. The Essex site does belong to the travellers, but without the necessary permissions to park their temporary mobile homes, their continued occupation is illegal. Now, the issue is in the news once more following a dispute between Travellers and locals in Meriden, West Midlands. The travellers were refused retrospective planning permission by the council to use the site after buying the land; the locals who alerted the council to the illegal camp then set up their own ‘monitoring’ camp to record the activity. The locals in that camp are themselves now being evicted; the travellers are likely to be evicted in the coming weeks.  

There is a fine line to be trod between respecting the lifestyle and beliefs of the gypsy and traveller community, who the Scottish Government has said they will recognise as an ethnic group, and respecting landowners’ rights. Those who own or manage land in rural areas have to negotiate difficult situations when a group decides to set up camp on their land, often because they have no-where else to go. Their ability to move around the country is a key part of their ethnic heritage and identity. Some travellers will settle for part of the year, some will constantly be on the move and require places to stop along the way. And in deciding to move on a group of travellers, under Human Rights legislation, this action must be proportionate and necessary. Guidance was issued by the Scottish Executive in 2004. As has been seen, even when a group of travellers purchase the land they wish to set up camp on, there is no guarantee they will be granted permission to do so by the local authority. 
Where the travellers do not own the land, a camp such as this will in the eyes of the law be unauthorised if the permission of the landowner has not been sought and given. What can a landowner do about a situation like this? The legislation that governs this is found in the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865, along with the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, the latter Act being  relevant as travellers will often chose an unauthorised site just off the public road, an area of which is regulated by the Act; in this case the verge is likely to be the area used. If a camp is set up, a landowner is easily able to evict, either themselves (provided they do no damage to property or cause any injury to anyone) or better still, via an interdict which will order the unauthorised persons off the land. If necessary, the police can enforce this.
If the landholding is large, with travellers occupying a distant and small area and doing so peacefully and responsibly, the landowner may be happy to tolerate this albeit for a temporary time. But difficulties can arise where anti-social behaviour is obvious – accumulating rubbish, noise pollution, or unpleasant behaviour by the travellers towards the landowner, or the community as a whole. This kind of situation, it should be noted, is not typical but can and does occur and can be a headache for all those living nearby. A common sense approach from both the landowner and the travellers is what is needed to resolve any situations amicably.
What should the local authority do about it? Ideally, there should be a location designated for travellers, but where there is, the standard of facilities can vary. A local authority acting in a positive way will initiate refuse collections and may even provide temporary sanitation facilities, perhaps for a small charge. The cost of being proactive will often be far less than the bill for removal and clean up of an unauthorised settlement. But there are still areas where there are no provisions made, which would only exacerbate the problem experienced by landowners.
As has been the case with Dale Farm and the recent dispute at the settlement in Meriden, the very existence of these camps has generated vocal protest for and against the rights of the travelling community.

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