By MIKE DOHERTY
Above: the Church of St Mary in Llanwern, near Newport, South Wales. Controversy has surrounded a campaign against Traveller sites in the area. Image: Wikimedia Commons
THE tactics of an “extremely professionalized and highly influential” South Wales anti-Traveller site campaign group has been called into question by a national Gypsy and Traveller campaigning charity after the Governors of a local comprehensive school dramatically withdrew parts of their submission to a recent planning consultation for proposals for a Traveller site in Newport.
The Board of Governors of Lanwern High School were approached by the Traveller Movement and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission because of concerns over their submission to a public consultation about a Newport Council proposal for a 43 pitch Gypsy and Traveller site. The site had been put forward as part of Newport’s Local Development Plan and is intended to be a permanent home for three Gypsy and Traveller families who live in the local area.
The Traveller Movement wrote to the school to raise its concerns over the “discriminatory” nature of the submission, which it felt was particularly “inappropriate and worrying given the need for schools to be inclusive of all communities.” The charity also raised concern over the petitions sent out by the campaign group Ringland Matters, signed by 14,000 residents of Newport, which it said were similar in tone and content to the school’s submission.
The TM also said it was alarmed by the revelation that two Newport councilors who support the aims of Ringland Matters, also sit on the school’s board of Governors; one of whom is Cllr Bob Bright, the Leader of Newport Council. The campaign is also backed by Tata Steel Strip Products UK, a local steelworks that is part of the Indian owned multi-national Tata Steel Group.
A spokesperson for the Traveller Movement said: “The consultation submission by the school was unacceptable, as is the wording of the petitions sent out by Ringland Matters.
"How can a Gypsy or Traveller family feel confident that their children will receive a good education when the school governors, including local councilors, think that it is OK to basically say that they don’t want a site nearby because it will affect their attainment and achievement scores?”
“How would a Gypsy or Traveller pupil at the school feel about the school’s claim that Gypsies and Travellers are bound to cause problems by letting their animals wander around on the road? The site is intended for three Newport Gypsy families and as far as we are aware they do not even keep any livestock or horses. The assumption that Gypsies and Travellers would be bound to treat their animals badly is prejudice and very worrying.
"Gypsies and Travellers have a right to somewhere to live and a decent education the same as anyone else. It would be interesting to see if the school would come out publically against a proposal for any other type of residential development," he said.
“From our perspective Councilors and Schools should be very careful when they get involved in anti-Traveller site campaigns. When an influential and determined group of people start campaigning against a Traveller-site then it’s easy to get lots of people to sign petitions by tapping into existing misconceptions and prejudices about Gypsies and Travellers. It's almost like they are creating a new 'community' in opposition to another one. In the heat of the moment, campaigners can lose sight of our common humanity,” he added.
After negotiations between the charity, the EHRC and the board of Governors the school released a public statement and apologized, saying that: “Our response to the public consultation may unintentionally have given the perception that we had reservations regarding the use of the site by Gypsy and Traveller families and its potential impact on ‘reputation, image, behaviour, attainment and attendance measures’. We have no evidence to support this impression and would disassociate ourselves completely from that observation. Furthermore the submission contained comments that were not factually accurate and we acknowledge the inappropriateness and unfairness of their inclusion.”
“At Llanwern High School we welcome all members of society into our school where they will be treated equally. We acknowledge that a thriving and effective school requires a diverse student population and here at Llanwern High School we pride ourselves in ensuring all students flourish and reach their full potential, both socially and academically. Llanwern High School also strives to ensure its compliance with legislation and policies relating to equality and diversity. In accordance with the school’s existing practice we will continue to work with a range of appropriate organisations and community groups in order to fulfill our goals and promote the school’s policies.”
However, with the Local Development Plan waiting to be ratified by the Welsh Government, the Governors remained committed to opposing the site “from a planning land use perspective”.