Cambridge City Council to ‘stand in solidarity’ with travellers over policing Bill - but stops short of identifying new transit sites
Cambridge City Council has unanimously agreed to “stand in solidarity” with the Gypsy and traveller communities amid concern that the new policing Bill criminalises their way of life.
The council agreed a motion to “express strong concerns” about provisions in the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently being considered in Parliament.
The Bill would create a new offence of “residing on land without consent in a vehicle”.
This would mean people living on roadside camps could face a £2,500 fine, up to three months in prison or their homes being taken away.
Cllr Mairéad Healy said: “These measures will further exacerbate inequality and discrimination by pushing them into the criminal justice system as the travellers cannot pay a fine of £2,500 and they be in prison for up to three months.
“The existence of encampments needs to be understood in terms of the historic failure of the government to properly meet their accommodation needs.”
She continued: “The majority of the police forces and police and crime commissioners who responded to the 2018 consultation on encampments were against criminalisation of trespass. Just 21 per cent of police bodies supported criminalisation, with 93 per cent calling for site provision as a solution to unauthorised encampments.”
The Labour councillor for Romsey, who previously worked for The Traveller Movement charity, authored the first dedicated human rights report, specifically focused on the discrimination experienced by Gypsy and travellers in UK, which was presented to the United Nations more than 10 years ago.
She added: “I thought it was bad then, but this is a different level.”
City council leader Cllr Lewis Herbert, who seconded the motion, added: “Cllr Healy is absolutely right that this is part of a wider movement against travellers.”
But the authority did not agree to amendments proposed by Cllr Hannah Copley for an approach to unauthorised encampments which prioritises provision of sites and negotiated stopping arrangements.
She also called for potential transit sites in Cambridge and on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
The Green Party councillor for Abbey said: “Cambridge City Council needs to change its approach to the traveller community in light of the serious shortage of legal transit sites available nationally and locally. We need more action if we want to genuinely build trust with Gypsy and traveller communities.
“I proposed we prioritise negotiated stopping and site provision rather than repeatedly moving people on. We need to start identifying suitable transit sites within Cambridge for travellers to legally stop at.
“It is not clear where Cambridge City Council expect travellers to move to legally after they evict a family.”
There are several local authority traveller sites in Cambridgeshire, which include two in East Cambridgeshire, five sites in Fenland, one in Huntingdonshire and two in South Cambridgeshire.
There are limited places at the sites and each site has its own waiting list, which is often long.
After the meeting, Jannie Brightman, a local activist who has been campaigning for traveller sites for years, said: “While welcoming Cllr Healy’s motion, the executive councillor defended the council’s eviction policy as being a welfare-based approach, but Cambridge Council was reported as the only local authority in the county who evicted travellers during the first lockdown. You cannot improve your relationship with the GRT community unless you own up to failures in the past.”
“As a result of a desperate lack of authorised stopping places and permanent sites in the UK, 3,000 traveller families across the country have no lawful place to stop.
“Research published this year from Friends, Families and Travellers showed that there were only five transit sites in the whole of England with any available pitches.
“Local authorities are required to undertake regular Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments (GTANAs), but at national level this system does not deliver sufficient transit sites.
“Last year, Cambridge City Council was reported to have conducted five evictions of unauthorised camps between March and July, against government advice on mitigations during Covid. It is understood to be the only council in the county to conduct such evictions during the first lockdown. Several of these evictions involved the same extended traveller family of 36 people, including 20 children, a newborn and a heavily pregnant woman.
Cllr Copley said “The vast majority of travellers would prefer to stop on a socially rented or private site, but can’t, and are forced into stopping on unsafe and unsuitable land without facilities, and to face constant evictions. Some families have identified access to Addenbrooke’s Hospital as their reason for staying on an unauthorised encampment.
“We have an opportunity to explore potential locations for a transit site on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus – this would help meet a real need for traveller communities.”
The Green Party said experience in Leeds has shown that the provision of stopping sites and use of negotiation rather than eviction from unauthorised sites results in better outcomes for Gypsies and travellers as well as savings to the public purse.
A spokesperson for Cambridge Biomedical Campus said: “We are all very aware of the extreme health inequalities across Cambridgeshire – especially within the traveller and Gypsy communities – so we would be keen to understand their specific needs as well as the pressure on the local authorities to determine how best the Cambridge Biomedical Campus could help. There are more than 20,000 people working on the campus seeking to deliver the best healthcare for our population, now and for the future, and we currently do not have facilities on site to safely and securely accommodate traveller communities.”
Labour councillor Alex Collis, executive member for open spaces, sustainable food and community wellbeing, said the city council was seeking to create more spaces for travellers to stay: “We recognise that this is the start of a journey. There’s more to do. And once we have the results from the accommodation assessment work, we’ll use that information to refine and improve our work in this area – that’s already happening. It’s going to be hard to fight the tide, introduced by this bill, but fight it we must, and fight it, we most certainly will.”
Cllr Healy added: “We welcome and appreciate Cllr Copley’s suggestions on the need for new sites – conversations are already happening around identifying potential sites and working with other authorities to do this.”