Gypsy culture is being systematically eliminated through a forced assimilation programme
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 10th October 1996.
Britain’s Romanies always knew there was something fishy about the government’s promise to let them establish their own sites, and last month the European Court confirmed it. There should, it ruled, be no special provision for gypsies under Britain’s planning laws. They would, as Robert Jones, the Minister for Planning, reaffirmed in the Guardian yesterday, have to accept the same conditions as everyone else.
Planning permission was the gypsies’ last hope. The Criminal Justice Act removed local authorities’ responsibility to provide sites, and the great majority of traditional stopping places – some of which had been used by travellers since the Bronze Age – have been barricaded during the last twenty years, which explains the record numbers of caravans now packed into official sites. Seeking permission to pitch camp on their own land, as Mr Jones advocates, is a poor substitute for wayfaring, but the only remaining means of holding their communities together. Yet ninety per cent of all such applications are turned down. Planning, Britain’s gypsies are now coming to see, is not an opportunity but a peril, a means of forced assimilation as effective as Guatemala’s integration of its Indians, or Saddam Hussein’s containment of the Marsh Arabs.
For 23 years the Romanies of Swan Farm, beside the village of Ash in Kent, have tried to muddle along without permission. When, in 1973, they paid £7000 or £8000 for each plot, they knew they were taking a risk, but it had to be a better bet, they reasoned, than endless harassment by landowners and the police.
Like gypsies almost everywhere, they were welcomed coolly by their neighbours. There were complaints of stolen cars appearing on the site and children running wild through gardens. Had Swan Farm been an ordinary housing estate, Kent County Council might have concentrated on the handful of people who were causing the problems, but, as the settlement had no planning permission, the council was entitled to clear the whole site. At the end of May, it obtained a compulsory purchase order, and is now offering the Romanies £200-300 for their plots. Once it acquires the land, it will divide a small part of it into regular parcels, get planning permission, lay on electricity, then sell leases to the Romanies for £14,000.
The residents were astonished, but found that the council has acted within the law. Without permission, the land was worth no more than its agricultural value. With permission, it acquired development zone prices. If they can’t afford to pay all at once, the council says, they can pay in instalments, and if they can’t afford that they can, like 90 per cent of Kent’s gypsies, go on the housing list.
In the meantime, a spiked fence and security lighting have been erected to keep the Romanies in. And, since a fight over the provenance of a car in May, the police have agreed to mount a 24-hour guard at the gates. With their housing situation resolved, the council enthuses, the children’s schooling will be assured. The Romanies will be “empowered to have the same opportunities as other people”.
It all looks neat, ordered and sensible. Admittedly, the security arrangements might appear a touch insensitive, in the light of the gypsies’ recent history. It’s true, too, that without land for their horses, and with trading banned on the new site, their economic activities will come to an abrupt end, just as their community life might have some difficulty straddling the picket fences. But, newly empowered, the lucky gypsies will now have opportunities to seek work as zero-hour contract cleaners, just like the rest of us.
It seems strange that we find it so hard to see what we are doing to these people. We have no such difficulty when urging Brazil to stop taking land from the Indians. China’s announcement last week that it will build new schools all over Tibet to eliminate illiteracy (and a few antisocial cultural tendencies) was greeted in Britain not with delight but with repulsion. We were quick to condemn Ceaucescu for forcing Romania’s gypsies into regular housing.
Yet somehow, perhaps because the means of assimilation in Britain are so dignified, we manage to overlook them. Had our planning system been designed to exclude travellers, it could not have been more oppressive. Strict zoning into development land (with premiums so high that only property developers need apply) and agricultural land (in which only farm buildings can be erected) leaves no room for people who need cheap plots for caravans. Their last option was not an option at all. Legally, respectably, by decent, conscientious people like the officers of Kent County Council, the Romanies and their lifestyle are being cleansed from our countryside. Our incapacity to accommodate other cultures puts the whole nation to shame.