A week doesn’t seem to pass without another front in the housing crisis being opened up. Whether it be leaseholders living in properties with unsafe cladding, or the 700,000 people who were served with eviction notices during the pandemic, the importance of housing legal advice has never been more apparent.
The call to action to support people from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community is another compelling issue behind which we as housing lawyers can make an important contribution.
At the 2021 Legal Action Group (LAG) housing law conference ‘Levelling up: transforming equality into action’, Abbie Kirkby and Ivy Manning of Friends, Families and Travellers
explained how the lack of stopping sites for the GRT community leaves many facing hostility and families struggling to access healthcare and education:
44% of people in the UK express openly negative feelings towards Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (EHRC
barometer of prejudice).
GRT people find themselves in a vicious circle where they are pushed from pillar to post by local authorities and police as they have no choice but to stop unlawfully due to the lack of sites. Meanwhile discriminatory planning definitions make it much harder for GRT people who seek planning permission for their own sites.
This is yet another example of the hostile environment that minorities face on a day to day basis and the ‘relentless squeeze’ disgracefully advocated by Mathew Parris in his recent (15 May 2021) Times
article ‘It’s time we stopped pandering to Travellers’
. The cumulative effect of the above measures, and the lack of legal aid, is exactly why the GRT way of life is so threatened in modern Britain.
Marc Willers QC, co-author of the definitive legal text Gypsy and Traveller Law
, provided historical context to the housing crisis faced by GRT people. Marc explained that the Government’s decision to give local authorities the power to prevent GRT stopping on the commons in 1960 inevitably led to more unlawful encampments.
While the Government did introduce a local authority duty in 1968 to provide more sites only 300 were built which was not enough to meet demand. In 1994 the Government repealed this duty and naturally local authorities site provision drastically reduced. We had heard earlier from Abbie and Ivy how local authorities had failed to identify sites and apply for grants.
Inevitably the lack of lawful sites forced many GRT people to stop without permission on land or on the highway. The response of many local authorities was not to build more sites or help travellers obtain permission, but instead to use borough-wide injunctions to effectively ban GRT from all public spaces.
It was against this background that we learned of the work of Community Law Partnership
solicitors and Marc, Tessa Buchanan and Owen Greenhall's (Garden Court Chambers)
work opposing these injunctions which culminated in the two landmark decisions below:
•The Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Bromley v Persons Unknown  EWCA Civ 12
: The Court of Appeal set out stringent guidance for those seeking borough wide injunction and highlighted the need for proportionality when dealing with the Traveller Community.
•London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Others v Persons Unknown  EWHC 1201 (QB)
. The High Court discharged many of the existing injunctions and decided that local authorities could only obtain final injunctions against persons they could identify.
As a result of these decisions local authorities should find it much harder to secure a borough-wide injunction and their scope and duration is likely to be far more limited. Needless to say, the inability to secure borough-wide injunctions is an important safeguard for those GRT who choose to pursue their traditional way of life.
Lastly, we learned of the threat from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
(The Police Bill). The Police Bill seeks to make it much easier to criminalise those who set up unauthorised encampments with the risk of arrest, fines and confiscation of vehicles. Marc criticised the bill for criminalising the actions of those who are effectively homeless and described the new offence relating to travellers as being both ‘vague and disproportionate’ especially given the existing draconian powers available.
Contrary to media reports and public perception supporting GRT communities and preventing unauthorised encampments are not mutually exclusive. It goes without saying the fundamental right of GRT people to exist should not be up for debate and the performative prejudice GRT people face should not be accepted.
For too long we have let GRT people down and we can and must do more:
1) Educate ourselves about GRT culture.
3) Increase capacity to provide advice such as the need to challenge planning decisions.
Marc Willers QC described anti-Traveller prejudice as the last acceptable form of racism that is invidious and needs to be stamped out. For those attending this session the fightback starts now.