Gypsies and Travellers Talk

Phil Eaton talk for Michaelstow Parish: ‘Gypsy and Traveller Awareness Session’

Gypsies and Travellers in Michaelstow

The Rich Culture of Gypsies and Travellers by Phil Eaton

Mr Eaton has been the Gypsy and Traveller Liaison Officer in Cornwall for the last 25 years. He manages a team of four people in the Duchy who relate to nomadic communities and people in various ways.

The Gypsy and Traveller liaison he provides seeks not to suppress the culture. Gypsies have a culture that goes back more than 1000 years and they have been persecuted and marginalised throughout this time. Part of the role of liaison he provides is to monitor and record the illegal encampments around Cornwall of which there are often 50 or 60 in a year, as well as looking after the needs of around 800 individuals living in the Duchy. As in all unauthorised encampments he provides a ‘code of conduct’ and acceptable behaviour to them which is often read out to the Travellers. This includes basic health and safety agreements, looking after the land, controlling animals, fly tipping and excrement disposal. Their stay on council land is dependant upon holding to this code, which they are asked to sign.

If they are on public land or land owned by or responsible to the Council, he needs to ensure that their rights, education, health and welfare is within basic limits. They are also assessed for needs, for example the needs of a transitory traveller trading illegally by the roadside are different from those of a Showman taking a break from a busy season. A family unit with caravans or an individual homeless or someone travelling ‘for economic purposes’ – all present different challenges.

There are several different types of Gypsies and Travellers. For example Roma Gypsies and Irish Heritage Travellers or the ‘Hippie Convoy’ New Travellers, sort of setup. All have a nomadic lifestyle but they are separate ethnic groups. Romany Gypsies are said to have their roots in India and came to Europe in the 13th century, while Travellers are ‘mainly of Irish origin’. Some of the communities can be quite tribal. They are a colourful people in life and death and can be very religious. Their culture, claimed Mr Eaton is rich in many ways that ours is not.

One incentive offered to all nomadic travellers to get them to settle, is to place their children into mainstream education. But even this process of ‘assimilation and integration’ can be seen as a tool of cultural suppression, forcing a culture that is essentially nomadic into the irrational views of corporate consumerism. The Australian Aborigines, South American Jungle Tribes, Masai Tribesmen of Africa, North American Plains Indians, even, some claim ‘The Cornish’ are a host of indigenous peoples losing their ways of being to a dominant culture.

It seems that that the basic values of a nomadic culture run counter to those of a capitalist culture. A society based on economic participation, static ownership and accountability does not mix well with that of nomadic peoples who can just move on when they want to. In these circumstances it is difficult to avoid cultural imperialism when integrating travellers of another culture, especially when so few of them want to be integrated into static living.

Central government want to get Gypsies and Travellers off the road and into sites and some funding is offered to bring this about, although most travellers do not seem to want this. In Cornwall there are presently just three authorised sites dedicated to Gypsies and Travellers.

  • Wheal Jewel is a 24 pitch residential site near St. Day – opened in 1992. Cornwall Housing Ltd are responsible for the management and maintenance here.
  • Boscarn Parc is a 32 pitch residential site built in 1968 to accommodate the gypsy families living on Carn Brea. Since 2012 the site has been run by Cornwall Housing Ltd. There are four dominant families on Boscarn Parc.
  • Fordown Parc is a 10 pitch residential site in Pensilva – again managed by Cornwall Housing Ltd. It was opened in 1968 and hosts a small, vibrant community which has integrated locally.

A recently finished, Accommodation Needs Assessment, commissioned by Cornwall Council and other South West local authorities, show that there is a need for a further 318 residential pitches in Cornwall, 60 transitory or short stay, emergency, pitches and 11 ‘Showmen’ pitches before 2030. The liaison office hope to put forward plans soon for the building of a 15 pitch transit site, for which planning permissions have been given, outside Liskeard at Horningtops. ‘Cornwall’s Draft Gypsy and Travelling Communities Strategy and Delivery Plan’ is underway – providing clear guidelines for the future accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers.

It is hard to identify appropriate land. Nobody wants a Gypsy encampment anywhere near them, so sites are not found even when land is available. The MOD, the church and local authorities all possess thousands of acres which may be suitable, but it never gets to planning. In the 25 years that Mr Eaton has been in this job, no additional site provision has been made in Cornwall. What is certainly needed, explains Mr Eaton, is at least, small, easily managed and maintained, temporary or emergency traveller site’s on the ‘Atlantic Highway’, and other main routes, heading from Wadebridge towards Bude and up into Devon as this route is being used more and more now by itinerant Gypsies and Travellers as they make their way in and out of Cornwall. Any services in these sites will be paid for by the users as a rent.

The audience for Mr Eaton’s talk harboured a range of prejudices. One person thought that Gypsies and Travellers were best treated with threatened shot guns and sprayed pig slurry. Others thought that Gypsies routinely avoid all taxes, pay no rent, avoid business rate charges, leave considerable mess, steal things, are rude and violent – and so on. Mr Eaton challenged some of these. Travellers on the authorised sites in Cornwall pay rent, tax and council tax, they pay for water and waste disposal – if they don’t – they get moved on. As with all people, settled and travelling, there are a few bad ones who tarnish people’s opinions.

Mr Eaton told us that although a private land owner has no duty of care if there are Gypsies or Travellers on their land, the County Council has a duty of care. It costs a lot of money to move Gypsies and Travellers on. A court order is needed and a Judge can actually decide to not move them on, as they have welfare, health and education needs as well as safety and human rights. The Police, who have powers under the Criminal Justices and Public Order Act 1994 can only move on Travellers if they have somewhere to move to – which seems unlikely at present in Cornwall. With the provision in Cornwall, and many other Local Authorities in the country, of new Gypsy and Traveller sites being non-existent, the police cannot move them on anywhere. As a result of this Cornwall Council, and others, have adopted a ‘policy of tolerance’ which means it takes a lot longer to move Gypsies and Travellers on.

The talk dipped in and out of issues surrounding Michaelstow’s New Traveller encampment, just off the B3266 near Fentonadle. Mr Eaton did not want to focus on this but he thought they would be moved on – eventually. One councillor asked Mr Eaton if he was aware of a Bentley often parked at the woodcarver’s site. He thought there might be a hierarchy in which a traveller family was managing several economically active sites (eg there are 4 woodcarver sites in Cornwall). It was clear that the roadside trader was also selling in cash and avoiding tax and associated premises costs by setting up on County Council land, much to the annoyance of others who have to pay. Mr Eaton agreed that there were clear hierarchies with the family structure for Gypsies and Travellers.

Although the talk was controversial for some, it was well-attended and provided good information and interesting challenges. Mr Eaton’s enthusiasm and depth of knowledge on this subject were well-received by an audience who seemed happy to have their prejudices challenged.

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