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Gypsy and Traveller Myth Buster

Who are Romani Gypsies?

This group includes English, Welsh and Scottish Gypsies and European Roma. Romani Gypsies have the longest known history of the Traveller communities, with their roots being traced back to Northern India over 1,000 years ago. Their language is known as Romany/Rom.

Who are Irish Travellers?

The first Irish Travellers were recorded in the 8th Century as travelling metal workers and menders of household utensils. Their language is called Cant or Gammon and they are mainly of Catholic faith, and prefer to send their children to Catholic schools.

Gypsies have a shared culture, language and belief system, as do Irish Travellers; both groups may be referred to as Travellers. They are recognised as ethnic minority groups under race relations legislation. Additionally all public sector organisations have a positive duty under the law to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality of opportunity, which includes Gypsies and Irish Travellers.

Do all Gypsies and Irish Travellers travel?

  • Planning law defines Gypsies and Irish Travellers as people with a travelling way of life. Whilst this is historically true, 90% of Gypsies and Irish Travellers around the world now live in houses. When Gypsies and Travellers live in houses their culture and heritage stays with them; you do not have to travel to be a Traveller.
  • Some groups are highly mobile, moving on when work opportunities have been exhausted and others live permanently in one area or only travel for a few weeks or months of the year.
  • Most Gypsy and Traveller families live within close-knit communities, whether in housing or on caravan sites, with strong family and social networks. Gypsies and Travellers now use modern, good quality vehicles and caravans.
  • The main reason for travelling is to work, follow fairs and visit family.

I thought the whole point of being a Gypsy or an Irish Traveller was that you travel? Why do they need permanent sites?

Although Gypsies and Travellers travel for some of the year, during the winter months most people need a place to stop:

  • Travelling patterns are linked to the seasons and the work associated with the seasons. Gypsies and Travellers do not travel on a daily basis, all year round. Families require safe and secure places from which to do their travelling. The ‘base’ site (if they have one) will usually be where they access GPs, schools and a dentist.
  • As Gypsies and Travellers grow older and become less able to travel on a regular basis, some require a safe and secure stopping place where they can maintain the cultural traditions of being a Gypsy or Traveller. Gypsies and Travellers also sometimes stop travelling for periods of time to care for sick or elderly relatives or to continue a child’s education within a supportive school environment. Families will then take up the travelling way of life again following these critical events.

Why do Gypsies and Irish Travellers stop on the side of the road?

There are not enough authorised places for them to stop; they may be attending a family wedding or funeral in the area, or they are travelling through to one of the many Horse Fairs and need to stop. These are called unauthorised encampments. The Government defines them as "encampments of caravans and/or other vehicles on land without the landowner or occupier's consent"; trespass is a civil rather than criminal offence. Nationally, 21% of all Gypsies and Irish Travellers living in caravans are homeless; this means they have nowhere legally to park their caravan. One solution to this would be to provide permanent and transit sites (site intended for short stays - such sites are usually permanent, but there is a limit on the length of time residents can stay).

Why does the Council have to make provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites?

Local authorities have a responsibility to undertake housing needs assessments for the settled population, to identify their accommodation needs. These needs are fed into the local planning framework and the Council will address the housing need by providing different types of accommodation - for example flats, houses or perhaps sheltered accommodation. This is now the same for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation which is just another form of provision that takes into account people’s different ways of life.

The legal requirement in the Housing Act 2004 is for all local authorities to complete a Gypsy Traveller Accommodation Assessment (GTAA), which identifies pitch requirements. From this information the authority need to identify sufficient land to meet the accepted need through the Local Development Framework (LDF). While the Council does not identify land there may be an increase in the number of unauthorised developments (this refers to a caravan/trailer or group of caravans/trailers on land owned (possibly developed) by Gypsies and Travellers without planning permission), with retrospective planning applications in ‘unsuitable’ locations being granted through the appeal process.

The number of permanent pitches required for Cheshire West and Chester is a minimum of 31 to a maximum of 45 and 10 transit pitches. (GTAA July 2007)

Who is going to pay?

There are two options:

  • Public provision - in the recognition of the importance of the need to provide sites, it is possible to apply to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) regionally for grants to cover a percentage of the costs for new provision; this is a similar process to how affordable housing for the settled population is funded.
  • Private provision - the land would be identified in the Local Development Plans that could be purchased by individuals to meet their family needs or self manage, but not all Gypsies and Travellers can afford to buy and develop their own land.

Do Gypsies and Irish Travellers pay taxes and rent?

  • All Gypsies and Travellers living on a local authority or privately owned sites pay council tax, rent, gas, electricity, and all other charges measured in the same way as other houses.
  • Those living on unauthorised encampments, generally speaking, do not pay council tax, but they also do not generally receive services. There are occasions when basic services, such as a toilet or a wheelie bin, are provided and the Gypsies and Travellers might make payment for this service direct to the appropriate local authority.
  • All residents within the UK pay tax on their purchases, petrol and road tax as do Gypsies and Travellers.

Having Gypsy sites nearby will increase crime levels?

There is no evidence anywhere to suggest that this is the case. Crimes are committed by individuals not communities. There is no evidence at all that there is a disproportionate number of offenders within Gypsy and Traveller communities as opposed to any other communities. The police service has learned from past experience that it is wrong to create stereotypes that link particular crimes with ethnic or social groups.

In Cheshire, neighbourhood policing and the establishment of Gypsy and Traveller Liaison Officers has helped build greater trust. Many Travellers return to the same sites year after year and do get to know local officers and local people. There are far fewer unauthorised encampment issues across the county than five or ten years ago. (Cheshire Constabulary 2011)

What is Cheshire West and Chester Council doing?

  • We are part of the Cheshire Chief Executives Advisory Group (CCEAG) on Gypsies and Travellers. Working in partnership with Cheshire East, Halton Borough Council, St Helens Borough Council and Warrington Borough Council, Cheshire, Halton and Warrington Race Equality Centre (CHAWREC) and Cheshire Police for solutions to Gypsy and Traveller issues. This group commissioned the GTAA.
  • We have set up and managed a temporary ‘accepted’ encampment within Ellesmere Port for the last 18 months, saving the council and private landowners legal costs.
  • We are keen to take a proactive approach to tackling the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers and are in the process of identifying suitable pieces of land for sites.

Who to contact for further details