Essex County Council U-turn on Traveller sites sell-off
Essex Travellers are breathing a sigh of relief after Essex County Council has rowed back on its threatened decision on whether to sell of its 11 Traveller sites - after intense pressure from site residents and Traveller campaign charities.
On 24th June Essex Traveller site resident’s world was thrown into turmoil when they received a letter from the council – seen by the Travellers’ Times - telling them their homes could be up for sale and that a decision on this would be made by the council on the 21st July.
Lisa, a resident from the Fern Hill site in Harlow, spoke to the Travellers’ Times about her fears:
“It’s no surprise we have been overlooked and not even told until a couple of weeks before the decision about the sites being sold,” said Lisa
“In Harlow we are treated terrible. This has added to our worries. These plots are not just sites, they are our children’s homes. We have to come together and stop Essex council selling to anyone who has not got Travellers interests at heart. We will not be overlooked no more. There is nowhere to go and on the road is hard. Two years ago I was on the road in Bucks and with nowhere to stop“
Sherrie Smith, the veteran Romany Gypsy campaigner who runs the campaign group Gypsy and Traveller Essex* slammed the way the council had handled their Gypsy and Traveller tenants – who pay council tax and rent to the council the same as any other council resident.
“Covid 19 has already created fear and uncertainty for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers across the county,” she said.
“Many are worried about how they go back to normal life, work and school. This has added to their fears,” added Smith.
“These families on the sites across Essex are valued members of local communities. They should have been involved from the outset. We welcome Essex county council deciding to consult with residents about their futures. Many local businesses and schools are offering to support them in challenging any unwanted decision to sell their homes. Pitches are precious and waiting lists are long in both Essex and neighbouring counties.”
Abbie Kirkby, Advice and Policy Manager at Friends, Families and Travellers said “There are huge implications of changing the ownership of local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites into private hands. We have received reports from different areas of the country where local authorities have sold off sites, with really harmful consequences for the residents - in the interests of protecting communities we would strongly advise against this. We are already in a state of heightened worry with the pandemic, so for any local authority to be considering measures that will have a detrimental effect on communities is completely unacceptable. Communities and services should be coming together to ensure people’s welfare is at the forefront. We will be working with others to ensure residents have their legal rights protected.”
However, after lobbying from residents and local and national Gypsy and Traveller campaign groups, Essex County Council have now told Traveller site residents in a letter – seen by the Travellers’ Times - that no decision on the sites futures will be made on the 21st July after all.
In a statement released to the Travellers’ Times, an Essex County Council spokesperson said:
“We have been working with partners to carefully consider how we continue to do this with regard to our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and how we, as an authority, can effectively contribute to achieving the best possible outcomes for them.
This work has determined that the most effective role we can play is in co-ordinating a programme of activities, alongside partners including the NHS and Public Health England, to improve their health and educational outcomes.
This review has generated recommendations, on which no decisions have been made for some of our current Gypsy, Roma and Traveller operations, which are based on historical activities or responsibilities that no longer fall under ECC.
One of these recommendations is to divest ourselves of our 11 owned and one leased Gypsy, Roma and Traveller sites and transfer them to an organisation with the necessary skills and expertise, to own and manage traveller sites.
To be clear these are recommendations, and the next stage is to undertake investigations. No decision has been made or would be made on divesting of any sites, and any such sale would not happen if stringent conditions safeguarding the rights and conditions of residents in future could not be met.
This involves discussion with local stakeholders, including site residents, going forward on a site-specific basis.
If we cannot divest ourselves of sites responsibly, then we will not divest of the sites. But it is important that we investigate the wider marketplace, including other public sector bodies, and should not assume that just because ECC has owned and managed the sites for decades, that we are the best organisation to do so going forward.”
Sherrie Smith cautiously welcomed the councils U-turn but added that residents must be consulted in any future review.
“There has been absolutely no consultation with us, the only Gypsy Traveller organisation in Essex and no consultation whatsoever with the community or families on the sites,” said Sherrie Smith.
“So how can Essex council propose to know what they “need to achieve the best possible outcomes?,” added Sherrie Smith.
"It is insulting, condescending and gives insight in to how we are treated by Essex County Council.
We look forward to working closely with the residents, and the council to make sure that this “review” of their lives includes their opinions and experiences.
Essex GATE will be supporting residents from all sites to form a residents group, so we have a voice in Essex. To find out more please email us at . sherrie.GaTEssex@gmail.com“
In our article dated 2.7.2020 “Essex County Council U-turn on Traveller sites sell-off” we incorrectly named a group in Essex as Gypsy and Traveller Empowerment Essex.
The correct name is GATE Gypsies and Travellers Essex and should not be confused with the organisation GATE Herts (Gypsy and Traveller Empowerment Hertfordshire)