Although Romany Gypsies and Irish travelers are regarded as two distinct ethnic minorities – meaning that they are protected from discrimination by the Race Relations Act – travelers are currently viewed as outsiders and regarded with fear and sometimes even disgust.
Our aversion to this group of people could potentially be rooted in a lack of understanding of their lifestyle and preconceptions drawn from what has been reported in the media.
Admittedly, a reluctance to integrate with travelers could be justified by the portrayals of anti-social behaviour we may have seen in the news or have even experienced first hand, but could it be possible that these are exceptions that have tainted our view of an entire community?
The issue that has brought the debate over travelers to the forefront is the row over Dale Farm. Situated in Crays Hill, Essex, Dale Farm is now the largest Traveller settlement in Europe, consisting of approximately 100 seperate properties.
The controversy surrounding the settlement began in the 1970s when permission was given to 40 Romany families to move onto the site next to what was then a scrap yard.
In 1996, the scrap yard was sold to an Irish traveling family. The site then spread and many planning laws were breached after families moved onto Dale Farm without permission to do so.
Their encroachment on the land has also caught the attention of the local authorities as it has been built on a green belt area, which is protected space around towns and cities to prevent urban sprawl into the British countryside.
Controversy emerged due to travelers – residents of Dale Farm in particular – claiming that if planning permission had been given or if more sites were available for them, then they would not have to build and settle illegally.
In 1968, an act was passed stating that all areas which had known regular passing of travelers had to provide adequate sites for them to stay. But in 1994 the law was repealed, meaning councils were no longer obliged to provide sites for travelers.
This was implemented in the hope that it would encourage people to find permanent dwellings. A website for ‘friends and supporters of Dale Farm’, states that 90 percent of all traveler planning applications are rejected initially, compared to 20 percent of all planning applications.
They also draw attention to the fact that Basildon council, who are responsible for the proposed eviction of the residents of Dale Farm, have planned to build on another green belt site in Essex near the settlement.
The residents of Dale Farm believe that the local council have double standards in this instance as the land they currently occupy used to be a scrap yard and some of the local residents’ properties are also built on green belt land; they see this as racial discrimination.
Despite the pleas and protests, the problems caused by traveler settlements cannot be ignored. Recently, the Government’s Department for Communities has issued a new campaign against anti-social behaviour by Gypsies and travelers.
Violence, noise, fly-tipping, untaxed vehicles and even straying livestock are among the issues local councils face with regard to this community who, even though they are in the minority, are still subject to the same laws as everyone else.
Len Gridley, a resident in Essex, whose property backs onto Dale Farm, believes that his house has lost £300,000 from it’s value because of the settlement.
Mr Gridley has been one of the few outspoken members of the community against the travelers and has claimed that he was harassed and received death threats from some residents of Dale Farm.
The title traveler can be regarded as somewhat of a contradiction with regards to the people who have chosen to reside in a permanent setting. Jake Bowers, a Romany Gypsy who edits Travelers Times and who in fact remains relatively impartial on the subject of Dale Farm, states that the term traveler is now a misnomer in modern society.
Travelers and Gypsies have a detailed history spanning over 500 years and naturally, they wish to live in a community where they can be near their families and be available to help each other.
While we cannot turn a blind eye to the negative effects of Dale Farm and other settlements like it, we can take a second glance and attempt to understand that for these people, the way they live is rooted in traditions which cannot be so easily undermined.