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Nomadism in the UK: You can’t travel if you’re never allowed to stop


A change to planning's definition of 'Travellers' has made it too easy for councils to avoid their responsibility to provide space for Gypsies and Travellers. A fresh court case may bring change, says Sarah Mann.

In December 2020 Lisa Smith, a Romany woman from Leicestershire, challenged the government in court over the refusal of her planning application and the planning definition of ‘Traveller’.

The planning definition of Gypsies and Travellers changed in 2015 so that those who have ceased travelling for work (even if due to a disability, long-term illness or old age) cannot get planing permission for pitches on their own land, and will not have their accommodation needs assessed or met.

Members of Lisa’s family with severe disabilities could not travel for work and, thanks to the new definition, were refused planning permission on a private site.

The decision had a devastating effect on their ability to care for each other and to continue their traditional way of life. For anyone to be excluded from being defined as a ‘Traveller’ on the basis of having a disability or being elderly is nothing short of discrimination. The judgment is due shortly.

Smith’s case is another symptom of a planning system largely failing nomadic people, even though Gypsies and Travellers have been travelling the UK for work and leisure for over 500 years. There are more than 3,000 Gypsy and Traveller households living on unauthorised encampments and developments – many because it is such a struggle to get planning permission for their land. During the pandemic we have been inundated with phone calls from people struggling to access even basics like water.

“Solving the problems faced by Gypsy and Traveller communities requires an improved planning system”

The 2015 planning definition of ‘Traveller’ makes it even easier for councils to explain away the lack of places for them. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that for 20 councils, the assessed need for more Gypsy and Traveller pitches had dropped by almost 80 per cent from pre-2015 levels.

Solving the problems faced by Gypsy and Traveller communities requires an improved planning system that considers and responds to the needs of nomadic groups. At a bare minimum, the planning definition of a Traveller should include all Gypsies and Travellers who need a pitch to live on. But for now, being a Gypsy or Traveller looking for somewhere to stop is a relentless game of catch-22 – you have to keep moving to keep your Traveller status, but there is nowhere you are allowed to stop. Everybody needs a place to live.

Sarah Mann is director of Friends, Families and Travellers, a national charity that works on behalf of all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers

Image credit | PJ Photography Shutterstock


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