An open letter to St Asaph
Last week Denbighshire County Council published a consultation on their proposals to develop two Gypsy and Traveller sites, one residential and one transit site, in line with their statutory duty under the Housing ( Wales) Act 2014 to provide accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller families. We have watched with the usual dismay as the predictable opposition swings into action – as a dedicated Facebook page has been set up to oppose the development, a petition has gained over a 1000 signatures and is available to sign along with prominent ‘No to Gypsy Site’ posters in numerous community facilities and businesses across the city of St Asaph, an opposition meeting has been hosted by the local St Asaph city council and local press have reported on the ‘ dream shattering’ impact of the proposed site for a family living close by.
Last year, St. Asaph hosted the event ‘Refugees: Reflections in Words and Music’ in partnership with Amnesty International UK. This was to deliver a message to refugees that they would receive a positive and total welcome in St. Asaph, as well as other areas in Denbighshire. Where many counties and areas said, “not in my town”, St Asaph residents put their head above the pulpit in the name of justice and decency for fellow human beings.
Here we are, one year later and we wish we could say the same about the response to the proposed residential and transit Gypsy and Traveller sites in St Asaph.
Comments that display a polar opposite in equal and welcoming mentality regarding these proposals are easily found on social media and even petition websites, such as:
- “Outsiders” and “Homes are needed for local people first”,
- “Great way to ruin DCC” and St. Asaph is my home town… and I for one don’t want it ruined”,
- “I’m signing because we really don’t want them joining our lovely community and more would follow!!”
- “They are no benefit to my community”
- and “I don’t want this on my door step!!”
With over 2,000 signatures and hundreds of discriminatory comments, which when applied to any other community would be considered outright racism and hate speech. Yet, this ‘NIMBY-ism’ (Not in My Back Yard) towards the Traveller and Gypsy community, whilst unacceptable, is still unfortunately wide-spread. Conversely, a group of people who did reflect the values of equality challenged a post on social media, accusing the campaign of having a prejudiced agenda, and that the GRT community, like any ethnicity, have a right to live according to their customs and traditions. This small showing of support for a minority who are accustomed to reading hateful comments, was a huge example of what a welcoming community looks like and was a breath of fresh air especially for GRT community members. Unfortunately, the post was promptly taken down following even more comments shows support for the GRT community in St Asaph.
The social media comments we have seen are the familiar statements and ‘myths’ about Gypsies and Travellers. Each one accusing the potential residents of tax evasion, or increased crime levels, and the idea that Gypsy and Traveller families are somehow ‘other’ and not part of our communities, are being given additional special treatment to ‘local’ families…..
We wonder how many of those in opposition have considered that the sites proposed are for local families? Welsh Romany families in particular have been a part of north Wales for hundreds of years with their own Welsh Romani language still regularly spoken up until the 1950s. These are local families who have also been waiting many years for a home, local families with connections going back generations, local families who were born and grew up in the area speaking Welsh, local families who work, study, bring up their families and are already part of the community, your neighbours, attending schools, churches and using services in the St Aspah area like any other citizen.
The transit site ( part of a network planned across north Wales) will provide decent facilities to provide an alternative to the roadside for the many families who have traditionally travelled for work and cultural purposes within and through north Wales. Being nomadic in the United Kingdom is not a crime – traditional stopping places have been closed, built on and made unavailable increasingly over the last generation. Transit sites are needed, indeed required by the law here in Wales, to provide some security for Gypsies and Travellers rather than being moved on amidst community hostility over and over again, and bringing benefits for the whole community in reducing community tensions, improving access to health and education on a temporary basis when needed, and any clear up and eviction costs.
A senior police officer recently spoke at a police summit on the need for transit sites across the UK and addressed accusations of encampments and links with increased crime saying
There is no statistical evidence of rises in crime when an unauthorised site arrives in an area” – Jeanette McCormick, Acting Chief Constable Cheshire Constabulary.
Denbighshire County Councils own ‘Myth Buster’ leaflet sets the record straight about tax paying and the notion of increased crime levels:
‘Do Gypsies & Travellers pay taxes and rent?’
- All Gypsies and Travellers living on a local authority or privately-owned sites pay council tax, rent, gas, electricity, and all other charges measured in the same way as other houses.
· Those living on unauthorised encampments, generally speaking, do not pay council tax, but they also do not generally receive services. There are occasions when basic services, such as a toilet or a wheelie bin, are provided and the Gypsies and Travellers might make payment for this service direct to the appropriate local authority.
· All residents within the UK pay tax on their purchases, petrol & road tax as do Gypsies & Travellers
It is very easy to believe these myths, but communities that do spread these beliefs as fact, can create a very hostile and unsafe environment for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Imagine how children from Gypsy and Traveller communities in Denbighshire feel right now picking up comments on social media about their families and walking past No Gypsy Site posters on their way to school? Imagine walking in to a pub or restaurant to see a petition gathering signatures against you or families like you because you share that ethnicity?
Our request to you. When you make comments about Travellers or Gypsies, stop and think. Would you make these assumptions or comments about refugees or any other minority community? It does not need festivals, or celebrity speakers to imbue equal values within a welcoming community, it needs fellow citizens to challenge the status quo, and those who are not afraid to challenge the mistruths, or ‘fake news’ and discriminatory discourse
In the coming weeks and months, every attack that’s aimed at the proposal of these sites, will be an attack on a local family, who have resided in Denbighshire for years. If you are a fellow local resident, a local business owner or a locally elected member of a council please think of them, their families and their rights, as you continue your path to create a ‘welcoming’ city.