Colin Brazier: Many would support a draconian crackdown on travellers
Some feel threatened when travellers arrive
I’ve got a soft spot for Travellers. Tyson Fury, the Gypsy King, the bling and the blarney. I look at pictures of joyful bareback riders at the annual Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria and think – what an antidote they are to the suffocating culture of risk aversion that the rest of us labour under. Who needs a mortgage, why worry about the council tax, when you can choose life on the open road. Be a stone that gathers no moss.
Well, that’s my soft-spot. Perhaps it’s better called a blind spot. Because there are a great many Britons who feel that when Travellers move in, it’s time to move out. Their arrival, it’s claimed, coincides with a surge in petty crime, thieving and anti-social behaviour. You can romanticise their lifestyles as long as you like – right up until the moment they park their caravans on the local recreation ground, whereupon the most liberal neighbour succumbs to the urge to shout Not In My Back Yard.
That, in a nutshell, frames the argument about Travellers in Britain, for whom life is about to change. And for that they have Priti Patel to thank… or to curse.
The Home Secretary has added new provisions to the government’s Police and Crime Bill, which will make it much, much harder for Travellers to live a footloose life which annoys the hell out of the settled population.
When it passes into law intentional trespass will become a criminal, not a civil offence. So landowners will no longer have to fight lengthy and expensive court battles to move travellers off their land. Because it will be covered by criminal law.
If Travellers cause damage when they park their caravans on sports fields or car parks, they can face up to three months in prison or a £2,500 fine for not moving on when asked. Police will now be allowed to seize their vehicles.
It will mean that if villagers pull back their curtains one morning and find caravans on their green, they have new rights to complain. Noise, litter, smoke, verbal abuse. These will all now be grounds for the public to ask the police to intervene.
It will mean that if Travellers park their caravans on the road or roadside, they can be removed by police. Officers will be able to act sooner. What constitutes an illegal encampment will change, from half a dozen caravans to two.
Priti Patel said: “No one should have unchecked rights to trespass on other people’s land without their permission – or cause boundless misery to local communities without consequence.”
It’s important to stress this only concerns unauthorised campsites. To put that into context, there are an estimated 23,000 Traveller caravans parked up in Britain, and 85 per cent of THEM are on Authorised sites, which will be unaffected by this legislation.
But for the communities, the farms, the villages, the market towns, the suburbs, even the city centres that have struggled to accommodate new and sometimes unwelcome residents, this new law is transformational. For those people who say Travellers are the victims of lazy stereotyping, that they are penalised for doing nothing more than pursuing an alternative lifestyle, this is a huge setback. And when it comes to some of the new law’s stricter provisions, the campaigners may have grounds to grumble. For example, Travellers could be in trouble if local residents “fear leaving their house to avoid walking past an encampment”. That’s not a high evidential bar.
But when it comes to imposing new legal restraints on Travellers, I suspect a majority of Britons would prefer a law that errs on the side of the draconian. Many have had enough. Enough of seeing their village green turned into a tip, their local football pitch reduced to a dishevelled caravan park. When the history of the Priti Patel Home Office is written, this policy, released without much fanfare, may be one of those that stands out as emblematic of her tenure.