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Travellers ‘face systemic racism’ and need more transit sites in Cambridge, it is claimed

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Travellers living in and around Cambridge face “systemic racism”, councillors were told during discussion over increasing the availability of transit sites in the city.

Cambridge City Council was challenged on its support of traveller communities and its provision of appropriate stopping sites at a full council meeting.

Travellers set up on Trumpington Meadows in June 2021
Travellers set up on Trumpington Meadows in June 2021

Public questions were put to councillors along with calls for more stopping places to be created before the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Under the Bill, it will be made a criminal offence “if a person who resides or intends to reside with a vehicle on land fails to leave the land or remove their property without reasonable excuse when asked to do so”.

Breaching this could lead to a conviction and the vehicles being seized.

Members of the public also challenged the effectiveness of the Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment (GTANA), which is used by the council to determine what it needs to provide for traveller communities in the area.

One of the public questioners argued that the city council’s “over-reliance” on the results from the GTANA was “misplaced”, stating that the evidence needed for transit sites is in “plain sight”.

The questioner said: “Last year, during the pandemic, South Cambridgeshire had 10 unauthorised encampments while Cambridge City had five.

“Despite that, Cambridge City was the only council in the county to evict travellers during the first lockdown, and this punitive response has continued.”

The member of the public continued arguing that the council has a “chequered history” of GTANAs, saying the 2006 assessment was the most successful in reaching out to the traveller communities across Cambridge and its surroundings.

“This was largely because of the county council’s provision of traveller education (CREDS) and the existence of the traveller health team. Both these services have been decimated.

“Cambridge City has little engagement between councillors and travellers in their constituencies or travelling through and camping on council land.”

The member of the public went on to highlight the 2011 GTANA, arguing it“failed in its duty” to consult with traveller communities and resulted in a “ludicrous assessment” of the need for one pitch.

Travellers set up camp at the nature reserve in Cambridge
Travellers set up camp at the nature reserve in Cambridge

The individual added: “There is little reason to expect the 2020 GTANA to have much greater success in reaching communities who have little to no trust in officials approaching them for personal information.

“This is due to the punitive fashion in which their needs have been dealt with and the systemic racism that characterises their experience of living in and around Cambridge.

“With the imminent threat of passage of the PCSC Bill, which will criminalise trespass and eliminate the nomadic way of life, the solution is obvious.

“We need transit sites and negotiated stopping places in Cambridge now.”

Another member of the public challenged whether the council properly provided welfare assessments when travellers camped on council land.

It was claimed that at an unauthorised encampment at Arbury Town Park, families were served with a S.77 order by an environment protection officer, addressed to ‘the occupants’ with the order left nailed to a tree.

“It is difficult to imagine at what point in these proceedings a welfare assessment was carried out,” said the individual. “If the council has done so, it would be odd if they hadn’t then referred to the family by name.

“Note also, that many travellers of this generation are functionally illiterate and written documents attached to trees is not an effective form of communication.

“In this instance, reading the order and summons aloud and answering any questions would have shown greater respect and understanding for this communities’ oral culture.

“In any event, it is more than likely that the families would have refused to respond, precisely because of their mistrust of officials attending these encampments asking questions as well as the systemic racism this community has experienced over the years in and around Cambridge.

“Punitive responses and universally applied evictions are incompatible with a welfare-based approach.

“The council will never improve its relationship with this community or tackle the discrimination they experience without offering real solutions, in this case the urgent provision of transit sites and authorised stopping places.”

Cllr Alex Collis. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Alex Collis. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Alex Collis, Labour’s executive councillor for open spaces, sustainable food and community wellbeing, said she wanted to reiterate the commitments the council made at a July council meeting, where councillors expressed “strong concerns” over the PCSC Bill and agreed to “stand in solidarity” with the traveller community in Cambridge.

Responding to the comments made about the GTANA, Cllr Collis said she did not want to “prejudice its findings” by “second guessing” what it will say.

She said: “Any decision around providing transit sites accommodation must, like any other form of housing need, be based on clear evidence.

“If information the GTANA provides us with suggests the major need is for transit sites and negotiated stopping points, then that is what we will work towards.

“Any decision must be based on evidence. We have a duty to the whole community to allocate resources on the basis of identified need, this is public money, that’s our duty as councillors.”

Cllr Collis added that the GTANA includes survey questions for traveller communities and also referenced the Greater Cambridge Local Plan, saying she would “encourage all communities” to take part in the consultation into the first proposals in November.

Responding to the comments made relating to the council’s welfare assessments, Cllr Collis said the first thing the council will do when notified of an unauthorised encampment is conduct a welfare assessment.

She said: “If families have welfare issues that mean they need to remain in the area the council will ask for some form of evidence.

“So if someone says they are there because they need to be near a hospital then the officer will ask for evidence of need.

“Then based on any evidence provided officers will negotiate with the group around how long they can stay or whether it might be more appropriate for them to move to another more suitable location.

“It is only once the welfare assessment has been carried out and any needs met that we will move forward to enforcement as needed.

“We do recognise that there may be some mistrust and reluctance by some in the GRT community to provide personal information to the council.

“Officers will always wherever possible try to avoid carrying out any eviction where evidence is provided that the family needs to remain.”

Cllr Collis said that if evidence is not provided, the council “may have no choice” but to start eviction proceedings.

She went on to deny that orders would be left nailed to a tree, and said that papers would be handed to a representative of the group with a verbal explanation of what they involve.

Cllr Collis said that in the “unusual” circumstance of not being able to hand the papers to a person, they will be left in a “visible place”.

She added that the council ‘continues to stand in solidarity’ with the traveller communities, and that “every councillor” is concerned about the implications of the PCSC Bill.

Cllr Collis said: “We take anti-traveller racism incredibly seriously and we challenge it where we see it.

“I’m going to conclude by putting a challenge to our questioners on traveller issues. Meet with me, meet with the open spaces team, the housing team, the communities team. We are 100 per cent ready for a positive, constructive conversation on these issues.

“The question I put to you is, are you ready for that conversation? Let’s talk and see what we can do together.”

Read more

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