Travellers negotiate an end to 'punitive' evictions in Leeds

A voluntary sector group in the city has reached an agreement that councils elsewhere could follow, writes Andy Hillier

Part of Tom Bailey's illustration to advertise the negotiated stopping scheme
Part of Tom Bailey's illustration to advertise the negotiated stopping scheme

The arrival of a gypsy camp in a community almost always causes consternation among nearby residents. The local council comes under intense pressure to move the travellers on quickly and often the police are expected to monitor and prosecute every indiscretion.

In Leeds, a local voluntary sector group and the city council have come up with an alternative approach. Together they have devised a "negotiated stopping" policy that allows gypsy and traveller families to set up camps as long as they agree to certain conditions. The idea was first proposed five years ago by Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange, a group that supports the local gypsy and traveller community.

Helen Jones, chief executive of Leeds Gate, says: "Before 2010 the city council had a punitive approach to traveller people. We calculated that one of our members had been evicted 50 times in six months. It has a big impact on the family life of the travellers, but also financial implications for the council because of the costs attached to evicting people.

"We were in a position to raise awareness of the problem and we particularly pushed the cost element. It led to an inquiry into gypsy travellers by the council's neighbourhood and environment scrutiny panel."

As part of the inquiry, Leeds Gate consulted members living on the roadside and compiled a list of their recommendations. The main priority thus identified was the need to stop evicting people and negotiate with families about an agreed period to stay.

This led to the negotiated stopping scheme, piloted by the council in 2011. Jones says: "The families were placed on a scrappy piece of tarmac - the type of land that all of our towns are littered with - but it was a success. The council persuaded local councillors and businesses to accept it and there were hardly any complaints."

Council savings

Under the policy, families select the location where they want to set up camp and sign an agreement that they won't stay for longer than three months. In return, the council agrees to not evict them and to supply facilities such as toilets and skips. The council can still decline a request to stay on the land, but only if it has good reason, such as if the families' presence poses a health and safety risk. In such cases, the council will provide the travellers with an alternative piece of land.

As a result of the policy, says Jones, relations between the council and gypsy travellers have improved markedly and the council is now saving £2,000 a week on eviction and clean-up costs. The scheme recently won an award from the Lloyds Bank Foundation, one of its funders, and Jones says the London Assembly housing committee has recommended the use of the scheme in the capital.

Jones says: "We are now asking other local authorities whether they are considering spending money in silly ways that don't get us anywhere or whether they should adopt a different approach."

The gypsy traveller community and local people are benefiting from the agreement, says Jones. "We've spent decades pushing these gypsy traveller families around, so they are happy to be offered peace and quiet on a piece of land," she says.

"Local people are also happier because often what you find is that it's not the camp that's the problem but issues such as the improper disposal of rubbish. The idea of being inconvenienced for three months is a lot more tolerable than thinking that the gypsy travellers will stay forever."

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