Blog: Fresh thinking on travellers
Fresh thinking, a change in attitude and a frank discussion. This is what is required if we are to seriously change the way in which local authorities deal with the travelling community and the associated public outcry, Councillor John Alexander tells Scottish Housing News.
The current local authority default in my experience follows a similar but nevertheless, pointless loop:
A: Travelling group encamps in a public space.
B: The council starts the legal process to have the encampment moved.
C: The encampment moves off of site A onto site B within the city boundary.
D: Repeat step B.
This perpetual cycle creates expense and frustration for the general public and the council, creates (repeatedly) negative headlines and a negative perception of the community. This ultimately prevents the building of a working relationship with travellers.
My point is this: if you keep asking the same questions, you will keep receiving the same answers. We need to be honest and frank - the current system is flawed and does not work for local authorities, the settled population or the travelling community. So why haven’t we changed our approach?
Like some other authorities, Dundee maintains a permanent travellers site which offers a number of useful facilities: kitchen/ bathroom units, a playpark & a community space. For this, we charge an average of £67.74 pw, although our site is not used by a large proportion of travellers and we need to find out why. Is it just the cost or is there something much more fundamental which we haven’t considered?
Here in Dundee, I have challenged our officers to find a new approach, to actively engage with the travelling community and to investigate whether our site is fit for purpose. Whilst I believe that the services provided are excellent, I nonetheless find myself asking the question “have we ever actually asked the travelling community what they’d like or need?”. No.
- Would travellers use the site if there was a smaller fee?
- Would a group pay for skips to prevent the dumping of rubbish?
- Would the public rather see a clear encampment or an unused site?
- Should we be using public resources to support a travellers site that is not wholly used?
- Do people genuinely believe that the legal process is the best option to reducing encampments?
These are some of the questions that need further investigation.
The legislation and associated guidance is very clear on this issue so we must find a pragmatic solution and have an honest discussion. No one gains anything from demonising this community in disparaging terms - it doesn’t change the law and it doesn’t reduce encampments.
My approach is threefold:
- Talk to the travellers coming to the city.
- Review our site and whether it’s necessary and financially viable in the circumstances.
- Look at alternative arrangements for travellers to frequent the city which reduces the impact on the settled population.
That said, I’m not living with my head in the clouds and do not expect to see a 100 per cent reduction in encampments. My aims are to work constructively with the community to find a more appropriate course of action in dealing with this issue and ultimately to reduce the costs associated with encampments, such as clear up costs, which would help to minimise the negative press coverage.
I don’t envisage that change will be easy, but it is certainly necessary.
- Councillor John Alexander is convener of housing at Dundee City Council.