It is exactly twelve months ago this Friday that the eviction of Dale Farm shocked many members of the public, Human Rights organisations and Gypsies and Travellers alike. In its wake, the UK Coalition government has been stirring up populist feeling with increasingly hostile policies and rhetoric aimed at Gypsies and Travellers. In Wales, however, things have been very different indeed. Where the Department for Communities and Local Government have clamped down on planning policies, Gypsy and Traveller site funding, and pitch creation targets in England, the Welsh Government have done almost the polar opposite.
Deep in the bowels of the Welsh Government, legislation and policies are being formulated to reinstate the duty on local authorities to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites, to ensure that residents of local authority sites are finally afforded equal security of tenure with other social housing tenants (though this was actually achieved in England in 2011), to revise the guidance relating to unauthorised encampments, and various education changes to ensure Gypsy and Traveller children achieve an adequate education.
For all these steps forward, it is sometimes frustrating to see the sheer time it can take to implement changes. Part of this is the impatient youth in me having met families suffering through the absence of these policies but it is also a growing, nagging, sense that the longer these changes take to adopt the stronger the populist voice of the UK Government is felt. Already I have heard comments in meetings about concerns over creating “too attractive” an atmosphere in Wales for Gypsies and Travellers, for fear of creating “another Dale Farm”. Rather worryingly, some of those making these comments are supposedly those representing the Human Rights of protected groups such as Gypsies and Travellers.
No matter how ridiculous the “another Dale Farm” statement may sound to you or I, it is certainly an opinion that is gaining ground. In Wales (though i’m sure it’s true also of the other devolved administrations), there is also a fear of being too much out on a limb. Small deviations from Westminster policy is often seen as a source of pride but compounding differences, say through a collection of more compassionate policies, can be seen as dangerous. Though I do not think we will see any of these developing policies being scrapped or shelved, we should all be watchful that the detail does not mask new inequalities or provide convenient get-out clauses for public authorities who have historically made frequent use of them.
Looking back at Dale Farm twelve months ago, many of us hoped it wouldn’t happen again but felt that the political will and legislation wasn’t there to prevent a reoccurance. Over the next twelve months we will hopefully have the legislative infrastructure in place in Wales but we will still need to grapple with the thorny issue of political will. We all know that political will mirrors public opinion, for obvious reasons. Therefore, we either have to convince politicians to go out on that limb and hope that public opinion changes to reward their gamble or we need to substantially change public opinion first.
At our last National Forum event in March, one young man from Flintshire asked me “what will this forum actually achieve, for me, in my area? It’s all good to talk about the media and changing things but will it stop the people in my school calling me a pikey?” In all honesty, I think this is likely to be a generational change, which will require a collection of inspired young Gypsies and Travellers to take the issue forward themselves, a cadre of commited Human Rights advocates and activists, the legislation that is being introduced over the next year to encourage a proliferation of small sites able to access local services and the resulting generation of the general public who grew up with, or near, Gypsies and Travellers. Only then will the public realise that, actually, their communities are just like any other – good and bad in every one. Our next National Forum will take place on Friday, where I hope we can go some way towards inspiring that next generation of Gypsies and Travellers to self-advocate for their rights and to get engaged with making those necessary changes. Is there an easy fix? No, but find me a Civil Rights struggle that was easy.