‘Negotiated stopping’ is an innovative policy which has seen Leeds City Council negotiate with Gypsies and Travellers to allow them to stay on a piece of land for a period of time if they agree to certain conditions around behaviour, health and safety and waste.
If they come to an agreement, the council will ask for no financial charge and even provide toilets and waste disposable facilities.
The council also directs Gypsies and Travellers away from contentious public spaces such as parks onto more appropriate council land in return for a longer stay.
There are several sites across Leeds which are used, with no one site being used more than once in a calendar year.
It’s estimated to have saved Leeds City Council around £250,000 a year on clean up, policing and litigation costs and has salvaged relations between the council, its residents and the Gypsy and Traveller community, as Thomas Barrett reports.
Depending on who you talk to, the Gypsy and Traveller community is the most feared, reviled or misunderstood in Britain.
Since 1970 each local authority in the UK has been required by law to provide an adequate pitch for Gypsies and Travellers. In practice, this hasn’t happened and due to the paucity of authorised places to stop they are often forced onto publicly or private-owned land, creating conflict and discrimination.
It’s a housing crisis that has all too often been swept under the carpet.
Environment Journal met Helen Jones, CEO of Leeds Gate, an organisation set up in 2003 to improve the lives of Gypsies and Travellers in the region.
In 2011 they were instrumental in helping to formulate the negotiated stopping policy in Leeds.
‘So much is projected onto Gypsies and Travellers by the media, politicians and local narratives that belies what’s really happening,’ she says.
‘Gypsy and Traveller people have lived in this country for centuries and yet they are still treated as though they are newcomers, with people trying to push them out.’
A traditional way of life
The Gypsy and Traveller community encompasses both Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, with communities living in every corner of the UK.
They’ve had a fractured relationship with what Helen calls the ‘settled community’ and she points to the Caravan Sites Act of 1968 as a turning point in relations.
It was a policy that resulted in the provision of council sites for Gypsies and Travellers to live in a traditional way.
‘It sounded like a good thing,’ says Helen.
‘But it had no requirement for the local authority to assess need and not nearly enough sites were built.
‘It was then used as an excuse for local authorities to move people across borders.’
The legislative requirement to provide sites was removed in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which Helen says gave local authorities carte blanch to evict families from camps, criminalising them in the process.
Today, local authorities have a responsibility to undertake housing needs assessments, which includes a legal requirement under the Housing Act of 2004 to complete a Gypsy Traveller Accommodation Assessment (GTAA), which identifies pitch requirements.
However, for various reasons, many local authorities have not followed through with their own recommendations.
The 2009 West Yorkshire GTAA identified a need for 40 new pitches in Leeds before 2013 and for a further 8 pitches before 2015 to accommodate population growth.
It didn’t happen and currently there is one council site on the outskirts of the city called Cottingley Springs, which Helen says is ‘fairly horrible.’
In 2015 then-Communities Secretary Eric Pickles blocked proposals to extend the site with 12 new pitches.
To many in the Gypsy and Traveller community, it was another example of the Government using them as a political football.
In figures obtained by Environment Journal, the 2015-18 Affordable Homes Programme allocated just £4.9m of funding to build 68 new pitches for the whole of the UK.
A change in policy
In Leeds, Helen says one family was moved 50 times in a six-month period.
Heavy-handed enforcement cost Leeds City Council too, as their figures reveal that during 2003-2010 they spent over £3m on policing, clean-up costs and litigation.
Helen says it became clear to the new Labour-run council in 2010 that their previous methods for dealing with unauthorised encampments was counter-productive and far too expensive.
‘The new administration and austerity gave us leverage,’ says Helen.
‘They couldn’t be throwing money around on court cases anymore and were sick of seeing the same families over and over,’ she adds.
So Leeds Gate wrote a briefing paper on negotiated stopping to try and see if a more pragmatic approach could work in the city.
They visited Gypsies and Travellers at the roadside and asked them for a list of things that they’d be happy to negotiate.
Some of these families came to meetings with the council to discuss negotiated stopping.
‘It’s amazing what happens when you have to look people straight in the eye and realise they are not uncivilised thugs,’ she said.
Originally the council wanted to ban all fires, but after being reminded that Gypsies and Travellers have a tradition of cooking outside, they agreed to a compromise and said fires would be permitted as long as they weren’t bigger than a cooking fire.
There’s no financial charge either which Helen says is ‘very pragmatic.’
‘They are saving so much money not shifting people,’ she adds.
A vocal response
When planning applications are made for new sites, there is often a very vocal response from residents who say Gyspies and Travellers commit crime and disorder.
In their report published in June, The Equality and Human Rights Commission used freedom of information requests to survey of 43 police forces in the UK found that many have ‘negative, stereotypical assumptions,’ about Gypsy and Traveller people, with only 2 out of 43 reporting that they have a targeted strategy to improve relations with travelling communities.
The debate reached parliament in October 2017, when a debate was held in the House of Commons with several MPs calling on the Government to give local authorities and the police increased eviction powers.
Following the debate, several organisations including Liberty, the Race Equality Foundation and the Migrant Rights Network wrote to then-housing minister Dominic Raab, calling on him to review laws around Gypsy and Traveller camps, saying the current situation is fueling anti-Gypsyism and discrimination.
‘People are demonised,’ says Helen.
‘I’m not saying there isn’t poor behaviour because there is. However, I would say a large number of families who have never left rubbish behind, or done donuts in fields with transit vans. They are treated exactly the same as people who have behaved very badly.
‘It’s not perfect by any means, and we have instances of behaviour that is regrettable, but the true story is there has been behaviour that’s been regrettable on all sides, and it’s spiralled,’ says Helen.
Against the tide
In 2016, researchers from De Montford University travelled the UK for a Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded report on Gypsy and Travellers, visiting sites as well as local authorities.
They found many councils were reluctant to acknowledge Gypsy and Traveller site delivery as important issues and, at times were ‘apathetic’ to their housing needs.
In particular, they found what they called ‘ostrich’ areas where councils found the issue of Gypsy and Traveller sites politically embarrassing and simply hoped the problem would just go away.
NewStart spoke to Labour Cllr Debra Coupar, who has been instrumental in the success of negotiated stopping in Leeds, even in the face of vocal opposition from within her own council.
‘Negotiated stopping is required to ensure that Leeds has a joined-up approach to Gypsies and Travellers who require a stay in Leeds for a short period of time,’ said Ms Coupar.
‘The policy enables Leeds to continue to balance out the needs of the settled community whilst developing a flexible provision to suit the needs of the travelling community,’ she added.
No site can be used more than once a year, which the council believes will alleviate some worries from the settled community that the sites will become a permanent site with rotated people. There also must be some ‘buy-in’ from local stakeholders before a suitable site is chosen.
‘It’s been very positive I have to say and is one of the tools we have at our disposal.’
As a result of negotiated stopping, a new eight-pitch permanent site will be opened in Hunslet, just outside of the city centre. It’s the culmination of years of work, with many in Leeds saying it would never happen.
Helen hopes it will be the first of several new sites, and she credits negotiated stopping with building a foundation of trust which made it possible.
‘It’s pretty amazing really,’ she says.
The JRF report highlights Leeds as an example of how good communication and negotiation skills were vital in their successful approaches towards Gypsies and Travellers, as was political will and leadership, and Helen is appreciative of how the council were willing to reset relations and give negotiated stopping a try.
‘Leeds City Council should be applauded for having the guts to do that.’