The Myth and Reality Behind Gypsies and Travellers’ Lives: A profile on Leeds’ Gypsy and Traveller community in Cottingley Springs

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In an address to the Conservative Party Council in October 2012, Eric Pickles ascribed new planning powers to local councils allowing them to issue instant stop notices and impose unlimited fines on Travellers setting up homes on disused land.

JUST West Yorkshire wrote to Eric Pickles voicing concern over the new policy as we felt it failed to address the root causes of the problem which stem from the shortage of local authority designated sites for Gypsies and Travellers.

In our letter, we reiterated our belief that Gypsy and Traveller communities are an integral part of UK’s wider community and also criticised the proposed measures as being discriminatory and disproportionate because they will lead to the criminalization of Gypsy and Traveller communities and put them at increased risk by creating a climate of xenophobia.

The office of Eric Pickles wrote back saying:

“The Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for travellers in a way that facilitates their traditional nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of the settled community. Our planning policy for traveller sites returns the right and responsibility to assess and plan to meet traveller need to local councils rather than imposing regional targets, which served to exacerbate community tensions.

Our policy aims to increase the number of traveller sites in appropriate locations with planning permission in order to address under provision and maintain an appropriate level of supply. It asks local councils to identify sites to meet traveller needs for five years, and to forecast ahead to fifteen years provision where possible. From 27 March 2013, if a local council cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable sites, this should be a significant material consideration in considering applications for the grant of temporary permission.”

JUST West Yorkshire and the Racial Justice Network will be following the region’s local authorities on their fiver-year plan to meet Gypsy and Traveller housing needs. We will be reporting on our investigation in future publications.
But what does the current state of housing look like for Gypsy and Traveller communities in our region?
Claire Graham, Advocacy and Development Manager at Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange (GATE), in conversation with Joanne, a resident of Cottingley Spring provides us with an insightful first hand account:

“You know, people think we live on here for free,” says Joanne, a resident of the Cottingley Springs local authority Gypsy and Traveller site in Leeds, as we sit chatting over a cup of tea.

I’ve worked with the residents of Cottingley Springs for nearly 8 years now, and if there’s one thing I do know, it is that it’s not a cheap place to live.

Fresh faced and keen when I first started I remember thinking “Mmm inexplicably high electricity bills, something I can get my teeth into”.
Eight years on and many letters to MPs, meetings with councilors, meetings with Npower, visits and hours which must accumulate to days on the phone to customer services and we seem to be in exactly the same situation.

“What I don’t understand” I reply, “is if they say its just the ‘Traveller lifestyle’ that burns more electric and gas, then why do people know others on other similar sites that pay half as much?” 
Joanne agrees. “And,” she adds, “Why when people move off the site move into a house do they pay a lot less than they did here?”

“I don’t understand the extra cost per caravan either” Joanne says “never mind that bedroom tax people are talking about, it’s like we have been paying it for years”.  I smile; a dark sense of humour is a must in this line of work.

Here Joanne is speaking of the additional £25 per week residents have to pay for each extra caravan they bring to their plot, which they already pay £98/week for in rent (£125 if you worked). This means when Gypsy and Traveller kids get old enough to want their own space they not only have to afford them a little caravan but pay extra rent too. “And we couldn’t keep up on the electric to heat that big static we used to hire from a mobile caravan hire shop but that was an extra £50 a week too” Joanne adds.

Rents are higher on Cottingley, and so are gas and electricity bills. Electricity bills come up to £75 a week in winter and bottled gas sometimes reaches £50 a week.
At Leeds GATE we deliver training for workers, for example, in the housing or health sector. Our community trainers introduce the community and look at history, culture and access to services.  It surprises people every time we do a little exercise breaking down the cost of living on Cottingley Springs compared to the equivalent local authority house which always proves to be higher.

Added to the high bills the isolation, lack of facilities and nowhere for the kids to play; the 47 families living on 41 plots have something new to keep them awake at night now too.  Proposals by Leeds City Council to build and additional 12 pitches much needed by roadside homeless, families were greeted with huge celebration from GATE and the community alike.  Plans to tag those additional 12 pitches on to part of the existing Cottingley Springs however were met with less enthusiasm.

Now don’t get me wrong, the irony of the NIMBY anti Gypsy brigade alliances has not passed by any of us by but as one of Joanne’s neighbours said to me the other day, “they may as well just build a wall around all the Travellers, stick us in the middle of nowhere and have done with it”. And that seems to be the feeling of many of the residents.

So expansion doesn’t come without its benefits; LCC have secured funding from the Homes and Communities Agency to carry out much needed improvements to the existing site. Some residents say that they feel like they are being blackmailed into submission others are still militantly against the expansion as they feel increased traffic will put their children at higher risk of accidents.  Promised improvements to services for residents can only be a good thing. A two-mile walk to the nearest pint of milk means that residents are reliant on cars or at least relatives to get their shopping.  Historical difficulties in accessing a GP, and other services are better than they have been but there is huge room for improvement so any additional efforts to improve the standard of living for residents can only be beneficial.

As for the roadside families, mostly Leeds born and bred who currently have no access to running water, no safe place to stay will shortly be getting their own homes. Cottingley Springs may not be the cheap paradise that some would have you believe it is – but its a home and its safe, as one resident said to me yesterday  “I have been on the roadside myself, I know what its like, its not ideal but who am I to deny someone a home”’.

From Leeds GATE’s point of view we have recently been successful in applying for funding for a portakabin that will be on site in the next few months.  It will be a community space for people to meet and activities to take place so things have taken a positive slant in a way as the site has received greater attention.
In the meantime as the community develops and grows residents are aware of the many challenges that lie ahead. Having a roof over their heads will better equip them to respond to the many issues that Gypsy and Traveller communities face across Britain.

Leeds GATE run regular training sessions for staff working with or looking to work with Gypsies and Travellers, we also have information and resources on our website at www.leedsgate.co.uk, please get in touch for more information.