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‘Systemic Racism within a Rigged System’: New Investigation Reveals how Travellers Sites are Routinely Placed in Risky Locations

As misrepresentations of, and discriminatory attitudes towards, Gypsies and Travellers continue to manifest, Katharine Quarmby confirms the structural inequalities levelled against them through extensive new data analysis

Entrance to gypsy site in Meriden, Warwickshire in 2012. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Images

‘Systemic Racism within a Rigged System’New Investigation Reveals how Travellers Sites are Routinely Placed in Risky Locations

As misrepresentations of, and discriminatory attitudes towards, Gypsies and Travellers continue to manifest, Katharine Quarmby confirms the structural inequalities levelled against them through extensive new data analysis

Travellers in England are being systematically forced to live in risky and unhealthy locations, an exclusive investigation by Byline Times has revealed.

Using the Government’s 2020 official Caravan Count – which is a list of all authorised Traveller sites in England – the Government mapping tool MagicMap was used to calculate the proximity of 242 sites to A roads, motorways, railway lines, sewage plants, recycling and refuse centres, industrial estates, rivers and canals.

This is the most extensive mapping of Traveller sites in England and it reveals that sites are routinely located on the wrong side of the tracks – in areas that present a potential risk to human health, are isolated, and have poor access to services.

Of the 242 sites that were mapped, 36% were within 50 metres of one or more A road, motorway, railway line, refuse/recycling, sewage or an industrial estate, canal or river; more than half (51%) were within 100 metres, 72% within 300 metres and 79% within 500 metres. A small number of sites were stripped out as they were closing, were repeat listed or could not be found.

Baroness Janet Whitaker, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies and Travellers, told Byline Times: “This research exposes systemic racism within a planning system that is rigged against Gypsies and Travellers…We all need somewhere to live and a person’s ethnicity should not affect their opportunity to live in healthy surroundings.”

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, said: “We have colleagues who grew up next to rubbish dumps or cement factories, and other unsuitable locations where they and their children are exposed to toxic air particles and pollution. Unsurprisingly, this has a severe impact on their physical and mental health. These sites are also miles away from local amenities, such as schools and health centres, and are basically unfit for human habitation.”

She said that the Government’s plans to make trespassing with the intent to reside a criminal offence in its Police, Courts and Sentencing Bill will only serve to “entrench this marginalisation”.

Major roads are known to have a particularly adverse impact on health, especially respiratory health due to poor air quality. One in five sites are within 50 metres of one or more motorway or major A road, while one-third are within 100 metres. Travellers are three times more likely than the general population to have a chronic cough or bronchitis, even after smoking is taken into account. Nearly a quarter (22%) of Gypsies and Travellers report having asthma compared to 5% of the population as a whole.

Roy Harrison, Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Birmingham, said that pollution from ground level sources such as roads has a measurable local impact from about 100 metres and that air pollution exposure reduces life expectancy and contributes to the incidence and severity of disease.

“The air pollution exposures experienced by Traveller populations living close to busy roads contribute to their poor health and reduced life expectancy,” he told Byline Times, although he stressed that other factors were also likely to contribute.

‘Harsh and Unforgiving’

There are around 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers in the UK and it is thought that around one quarter of the population live on sites, with the remainder living in bricks and mortar.

Local authorities were first required to provide sites for nomadic Travellers under the 1968 Caravan Sites Act. The implementation of the legislation was surveyed by Sir John Cripps, chairman of the Countryside Commission, in 1977. The Cripps report looked at 65 authorised sites and found that they had been placed on either contaminated land, by busy roads and rail lines, near sewage stations, rubbish dumps or near heavy industry and concluded that “no non-Gypsy family would be expected to live in such places”.

Research carried out by Pat Niner in 2003, for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, painted a similar picture. In 2016, Margaret Greenfields, Professor of Social Policy and Community Engagement at Buckinghamshire New University, carried out a depth study of six sites with the Traveller Movement for the Department of Health. The study found that there was hostility when families tried to provide private sites in more suitable locations and identified “atrocious standards of many public sites which are frequently placed in marginal and unhygienic areas which would be regarded as unsuitable for other types of accommodation”.

Britain has been ranked the fifth richest country in the world. Is this disparity acceptable?

Mattey Mitchell

Professor Greenfelds said that they found that children and vulnerable adults had frequent accidents or ill health “as a result of sewage leaks, damaged paving stones or even vermin infestations from surrounding areas” and welcomed Byline Times‘ new research, saying that it provides “much-needed evidence that… little has changed in relation to where and how generations of Gypsy and Traveller children are growing up, and the public health hazards to which they are exposed”. 

The new analysis uses similar indicators of unhealthy places, using a range of sources such as Natural England’s research on environmental justice, international research on air quality and roads, and emerging work from National Rail on the health effects of living near railways and stations. The investigation reveals how little has changed since the 1970s, with sites still placed in locations where nobody else would live and segregated from so-called settled communities.

A small Traveller site currently being planned as part of a larger housing development near Hemel Hempstead, for instance, is set to have a separate entrance for the housed residents, with Gypsies and Travellers having a ‘poor door’ – a completely separate entrance, which councillors and officers claim community members wanted. Local community groups deny being consulted and the Traveller site is planned at the far side of the development and nearest to a sewage pumping station, as well as metres away from a mainline railway. 

Mattey Mitchell, campaigns officer at Friends, Families and Travellers, told Byline Times: “These findings shed a harsh and unforgiving light on the state of equality in Britain today. It’s already known that Romany and Traveller communities face a nationwide housing crisis. We now learn that existing accommodation falls far short of national standards. Britain has been ranked the fifth richest country in the world. Is this disparity acceptable?”

This investigation found that some sites are located close to multiple factors associated with poor health outcomes.

For example, one site near the Science Park in Oxford, is situated just over 100 metres from two sewage facilities and 300 metres from a busy road, with a nearby site being sandwiched between the M40 and A40.

A site in Bradford is located behind a heavily used recycling site, not far from a railway and industrial area. Residents have voiced concerns previously about smell, dust, vermin and noise.

Another site in the Mole Valley area, built in 2007, is sandwiched between an A road and a railway line which are 50 metres apart, and isolated from all other housing. 

A site in Ellesmere Port, built in 2014, is around 30 metres from a railway track, 40 metres from an industrial area, and just over 20 metres from a recycling centre.

Meanwhile, Travellers at another site in York, near a recycling centre and industrial area, had to be relocated for four months after the river Foss flooded, contaminating the site in 2016. 

Government planning guidance for sites, issued in 2015, states that they should not be located in areas vulnerable to flooding, because of the vulnerability of caravans. The guidance also states that planning decisions should consider the health and well-being of Travellers. Other sites were often close to mobile phone masts, cemeteries, busy roundabouts and power stations. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local  Government, said: “Our Planning Policy for Traveller Sites makes clear councils should properly consider the effect of environmental factors on the health of Travellers that may locate at a site… We will deliver a cross-Government strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers) communities in due course.”

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