Smithy Fen, Cambridgeshire
In October 2011, six Traveller families at Smithy Fen in Cambridgeshire faced forced eviction as South Cambridge Council threatened to serve injunctions on them and their land. All the families are living on pitches they bought legally. This land is part of a legally recognised Travellers site where many friends and relatives live adjacent to the threatened plots, with full planning permission. The Travellers’ site at Smithy Fen has been owned and used as a stopping site by Travellers for decades. All the families under threat of eviction have been living at Smithy Fen for the last ten years, all have children who are attending local schools. One of the families includes a father of four who is being treated locally by specialists at Addenbrookes hospital for a very rare and debilitating terminal illness. Planning consultant Michael Hargreaves who works with the ITMB has been working with TSN and local Traveller families on strategies to avoid evictions and to secure land locally for the six Traveller families.
New planning application
The Travellers put in a new planning application, seeking to develop the land they own and some previously injuncted plots, to improve the site, creating a children’s play area, planting trees and increasing the energy efficiency and flood defences around the site. While the planning application was being considered the council is not able to lawfully serve injunctions on the families.
There is a vocal group of local settled people who are opposed to any expansion of the Travellers’ site. Some of these used to be members of a local group that called itself ‘Middle England Rage’.
The council arranged a meeting with the hostile local residents, and explained that there would be a consultation period and sent all the opponents letters informing them of the process by which they could register their complaints. The council did not inform the Travellers of this meeting or give them an opportunity to discuss the consultation process. Some families – only those who made the application – were sent letters about the consultation but liaison officers did not hand deliver or explain these letters to the families. TSN worked with families to make representations to the council from the Travellers, including a formal complaint about the racist treatment of Travellers in relation to the planning consultation exercise and the failure of liaison services to communicate council information and to advocate for Travellers. TSN collected Travellers views by transcribing tape and video recordings and entering these into the online consultation system. Travellers at Smithy Fen overwhelming supported the proposed development.
Open racism against Travellers at South Cambridge Council
Local councillor, Mervyn Loynes, on hearing that the Travellers had put in a new application made racist comments in front of officers and has been forced to resign. He was the chair of the planning and enforcement sub-committees and had regularly been able to vote on Traveller planning applications and on decisions to forcibly evict Traveller families. This is the second openly racist councillor identified at South Cambridge Council and present on the planning and enforcement sub-committees; in 2009 Councillor Deborah Roberts, who still holds her post, said she would “launch a suicide bomb attack on Smithy Fen if she had cancer’.
Predictably, despite offering no alternative, the Council has now refused the Travellers planning application. The Travellers are appealing this decision while at the same time seeking to secure an alternative site, which would make use of Homes and Communities Agency land and the mystery Department for Communities and Local Government ‘£40Million pot’ which has been set aside for the development of Travellers sites, but accompanied by terms and conditions which mean that so far hardly a penny of this money has been spent. South Cambs Council claim they are willing and able to access and spend this money and say that they will work to secure identified sites. We will believe when we see it, but the Travellers are acting in good faith and seeking to identify land. Meantime they offering to remove their current planning application appeal if and when new land is granted for them to live on legally.
Future of Smithy Fen
As ever the best available and most suitable site is the one the Travellers are being thrown off. Local people from the settled community and local councillors talk about the ‘openness of the countryside’ being damaged by ‘intensification’ by any further Traveller development of pitches at Smithy Fen. They also say that the ratio of Travellers to settled people in the local villages of Smithy Fen and Cottenham are ‘disproportionate’ and that Travellers sites ‘integrate’ best when they are small. This idea – that marginal and minority communities can must survive in diffuse groupings amid hostile local communities is not one which has been legally established in relation to any other racial group in the UK. In relation to Smithy Fen, the Travellers argue that there has always been a large Traveller community living and stopping in the area and that, owing to legislative changes there are far too few safe places for Travellers to stop anywhere, placing pressure on all exiting sites. In addition, Travellers want their children to be able to access education and families need some stability given that there are so few legal places to stop, making life on the road untenable and leaving overcrowding at almost every available site. Until new sites are found and made legal Travellers will be forced into unauthorised sites. The council has bunded plots at Smithy Fen – destroying the Travellers’ site and the ‘openness of the countryside’. Smithy Fen has plenty of land which could be used for new plots and the whole site could be developed and improved. The Travellers are keen to do this work, but at the moment there are too many empty, injuncted plots and too many families fighting planning decisions, leaving little spare money and insufficient security for residents to feel able to invest in improvements on the site. The council’s failure to permit stable legal living spaces for Traveller families at Smithy Fen is in effect contributing not only to increased homelessness, instability, stress and suffering among Traveller families, but also leads to increased stagnation of the site, reducing the quality of life for all the those living at Smithy Fen.
Local Development Plans
There is a consultation open inviting local people to comment on the local development plan. As part of Localism Act all councils must develop and consult on local develop plans. These have sections relating to Traveller policy. Much of the language and many of the statements are inadequate and will leave Travellers vulnerable in the future if they are not challenged now. Local TSN people have put in responses relating to the inadequacy of needs assessments which have been drawn up without any consultation with the Traveller Community, which is contrary to regulations. In addition the criteria for accepting planning permission for a Travellers site is not in line with criteria for accepting the development of social housing. This means it is easier for prejudiced councillors to find ‘legal’ reasons to turn down planning applications from Travellers than to turn down plans for social housing. There is no reason for this to be the case unless it is accepted that Travellers require special consideration and the only justification for such an exception relies on prejudicial – racist – concerns about the Traveller community. Again this requires head on challenge. In addition regulations which discuss ‘intensification’ relating the size of a Traveller site in relation to the nearest local village or town need to be challenged probable centrally as well as locally – such regulations suggest that it is acceptable to contain ethnic minority communities in ghettoes. The level of need, issues of marginalisation, deprivation and inequality need to be clearly stated and the need for sites now, not talk of future sites, emphasised. Ultimately involvement in this process is likely to make little difference to the outcome but it allows us to engage in a bigger national challenge to the kinds of policies which are being drawn up everywhere locally where local councils are left to their own devices. The outcome if these policies are not challenged could be devastating for Travellers seeking land and planning permission in coming years. The policy strengthens the hold of racist constituents on the council agenda.