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   Inside Out - South East: Monday September 19, 2005

THIS WEEK'S HIGHLIGHTS - GYPSIES

Kaddy Lee Preston in Fordwich
Feelings run high in the town of Fordwich

More and more gypsies are buying up land and putting their caravans on it before applying for planning permission. Inside Out looks at both sides of the argument at the picture postcard 'village' of Fordwich.

For hundreds of years Gypsies have been a familiar sight in the South East.

They've been part of the landscape as they roam around the region looking for work, taking their homes with them as they go.

But times are changing and many gypsies and travellers are settling down.

So when they buy themselves a plot of land in the countryside and move in what happens then?

Are the Gypsies welcomed with open arms or do the locals object?

Fordwich feuds

Fordwich, near Canterbury, has a population of about 300 people. It's one of the prettiest villages in Kent, although technically it's a town - the smallest in Britain.

It seems like an idyllic place, but problems started when the Gypsies moved in.

Paint vandalism
Vandalism in Westerham

The Gypsies have moved onto Moate Farm next to the town, but they're not trespassing.

They actually own the place. The problem is they haven't got planning permission to live here.

It's just one example of a problem which is happening all over the rural South East.

In High Halden near Ashford, Sarah Brazil bought two and a half acres of land. She and her son moved on to the property, and then she applied for planning permission.

Their case is due to be heard in the High Court.

In Westerham, George Harbour bought two acres of land. His planning permission has been refused and he is currently waiting for an appeal date.

Recently someone vandalised his site, spraying paint on his vehicles, cutting the tarpaulins and slashing tyres.

Planning permission?

Like all those examples, the Gypsy family in Fordwich didn't have planning permission when they moved on to their own land.

Four years ago they brought what they insist are three large caravans onto the land.

One was for the elders, Joe and Bridy Jones. The other two were for their extended family of ten other people.

If you apply for permission retrospectively, this is officially called an unauthorised development; people who have bought land and are living on it, but don't have planning permission to do so.

Permission was granted by Canterbury City Council for three mobile homes, as long as they kept to the far end of the field, away from the neighbours, and grew trees to screen them from view.

But then a group of local residents called the Friends of Fordwich and District stepped in.

They took the matter to the High Court who then quashed the ruling. This meant that Canterbury City Council had to reconsider the planning application all over again. This time the Gypsies were refused.

The Chairman of the Friends of Fordwich Roger Green, who is also a town councillor, gave Inside Out the following statement:

"The Friends have a history of opposing any planning application which breaches the rules which we are all expected to live by, and will continue to do this regardless of whether or not the applicants are claiming the benefits of gypsy status."

So far the Jones' have had planning permission granted, and then taken away again.

So they appealed against the decision resulting in a two day public inquiry. The gypsies had to fulfil certain conditions.

When is a caravan not a caravan?

At the inquiry the Friends of Fordwich argued that in order to qualify as Gypsies, they must live in a caravan.

The law says a caravan can be no more than 20 feet wide.

The Inspector came along with a tape measure. It turned out to be 20 feet one inch, one inch too big, but in the Inspector's decision, she said the extra inch could be ignored

And so the Gypsies were once again granted planning permission.

Gypsy caravan
When is a caravan not a caravan? Is this a caravan?

The local MP says this is unfair. He claims that anybody else wouldn't have a hope of getting planning permission, but the Jones won the Inquiry simply because they're gypsies.

At this point Canterbury City Council said enough is enough.

As far as the council was concerned, the Gypsies could stay.

But the Friends of Fordwich had other ideas. They applied for another Judicial review and it went back to the High Court.

So back at the High Court in London they went through the case all over again. And, once again, the Judge quashed the decision to give the Jones planning permission.

And this is the situation they are in today. Now there has to be another planning inquiry to go through the whole process again.

South East challenge

It is likely to be a long time before the problem of Gypsies and travellers is solved in the South East.

But things are about to change. Under a new law, local authorities will have to find out how much accommodation they need, and do something about it.

Gypsy home
The Gypsy's mobile home

Back in the mid nineties the then Conservative government came up with a plan to solve the gypsy problem.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 said local authorities no longer had to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers.

But on the other hand they released a guidance to planning authorities called Circular 1/94 which advised them to encourage gypsies to provide for themselves.

It said the authorities should help by quantifying how much accommodation is needed and identify land suitable for Gypsy sites.

Unfortunately, as Gypsy and Traveller law experts say, it hasn't worked.

The bigger picture

GYPSIES


The word Gypsy had been thought by some scholars to derive from "Egyptian", from where the Roma people were wrongly believed to originate.

Gypsy has a racial definition - people originating in north-west India who left in the first millennium AD, mainly heading north and west and spreading to most parts of Europe by the 16th century.

The Romany language is of Indo-Iranian origin.

There are many types of gypsies - UK Irish Travellers, Scots Travellers (Nachins), Welsh Gypsies (Kale) and English Gypsies (Romanichals).

Other types of gypsy include Travelling Showpeople (Fairground Travellers), Boat Dwellers (Bargees) and Circus Travellers.

In addition there are New Travellers or New Age Travellers, often defined as people who have made a conscious decision to adopt an alternative lifestyle.

Planning law defines Gypsies and Irish Travellers as people with a nomadic way of life.

90% of Gypsy and Traveller planning permission applications are initially rejected compared to 20% overall (1997 research).

Gypsies and Irish Travellers living on a local authority or privately owned sites pay rates, rent, gas, electricity and all other associated charges, measured and charged in the same way as neighbouring houses.

It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers living in the UK.

The majority of Gypsies and Irish Travellers live legally in trailers (caravans) on local authority owned or privately owned sites.

However, a minority live on the road-side and in unauthorised encampments as a result of too few legal sites.

They claim that the lack of permanent and transit sites throughout the country has forced them to camp wherever they can.

The latest figures from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) for the number of caravans show that there are about 15,000 in the UK.

Seventy two percent of these are believed to be on authorised sites, more than half on local authority sites with the rest on authorised private sites.

It is estimated that 28% of these are on unauthorised developments or encampments with 12% on unauthorised developments (where Gypsies and Travellers own the land but do not have planning permission).

A further 16% are on unauthorised encampments where Gypsies and Travellers do not own the land and planning consent has not been given for use as a Gypsy and Traveller site.

Since 1996 the number of Gypsy and Traveller caravans has remained fairly constant, but the number of caravans on unauthorised developments has increased.

The majority of Gypsies and Travellers living on authorised sites or houses do abide by the planning laws.

But it's clear that this controversial and complex debate will continue to rage in the South East as well as in the rest of the UK.

See also ...

Inside Out: South East
Gypsy Travels

On bbc.co.uk
news.bbc.co.uk (Gypsies)

On the rest of the web
Traveller's Law
Commission for Racial Equality

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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