Hidden between a set of railways lines in Bow is a small caravan site. Lisa, 25, stands in the door of her caravan:
“Families in tower blocks wouldn’t want their kids growing up on this site. It’s the same with us; we wouldn’t want our kids growing up there”.
Her family will soon have to move out of the site to make way for a Crossrail shaft. But she is lucky. Her family will soon to be able to move to another site.
Thousands of Gypsies and Irish Travellers have been forced to leave caravans and move into bricks and mortar accommodation over the last decades. A minority with a centuries-old London heritage is having its culture silently displaced.
Nobody keeps reliable figures but the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit estimate that there are 30,000 Gypsies and Irish Travellers in London. The population is growing but in the last twenty years the number of caravan sites has reduced by 15 per cent. The London Gypsy and Traveller Unit estimates that four out of five London travellers now live in bricks and mortar accommodation.
The urgency of the problem has been playing out in court as a result of Hackney Council’s ongoing legal campaign against the McDonagh family. The family was evicted from their caravan pitch in 2009 to make way for the Olympics. Since then, they have moved from park to park in a bid to avoid bricks and mortar. The Council is seeking an injunction to stop them staying on any public land in the borough.
A freedom of information request revealed that the council has spent over £200,000 on eviction-related costs.
The Mayor of London has a duty to impose targets for more traveller campsite provision on local authorities in his “London Plan”. In 2008, the Greater London Authority identified a need for 768 new caravan pitches in London. Between 53 and 112 were earmarked for ELL boroughs.
But what followed was a two-year abdication of the Mayor’s responsibility towards travellers by the newly elected Boris Johnson.
In September 2009, the draft London Plan set a target of 538 pitches. In March 2010, a “minor alteration” reduced the target to 238. In September 2010, a second “minor alteration” scrapped the targets altogether.
Fifty members of the community wrote letters to Boris Johnson protesting against the lack of action on housing. A quarter of whom used the word ‘desperation’.
The Mayor defended the alteration, arguing that: “Detailed targets is not the most effective or fair way to deliver real improvements in the provision of pitches.”
Gill Brown, from the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, argues that the absence of strategic planning across London makes it easy for councils to opt out of building new sites.
She described local councils’ attitude to traveller accommodation as “extremely piecemeal”. She estimates that a third of councils have functioning waiting lists, a third have unclear processes, while the rest have no process at all.
Lewisham no longer has any caravan site whatsoever.
The biggest problem with waiting lists is that there are no new pitches for families to wait for. In fact, none have been built in London since 2010, according to the LGTU’s latest figures.
In South-East London, a woman takes me into her caravan. Its walls are richly decorated with Catholic iconography. In a thick Irish accent she tells me of the government cuts to an Irish Travellers support group based in Southwark.
“They have a cheek to take it away. It is ridiculous,” she says.
I ask her for her name and she refuses.
“If I give you my name I might regret it”.
Archie, who works at the Southwark Travellers Action Group, an advocacy group for Irish travellers in South London, explains why the woman was reluctant to trust me.
“Historically, travellers haven’t been treated well by authorities and find themselves targeted by neighbours and isolated from their families when scattered around in bricks and mortar accommodation.
“Living on sites gives them the family and community support, particularly when it comes to childcare and care for the elderly. It may take generations for trust to build up between travellers, statutory institutions and settled people.”
“This is a very difficult issue, particularly in this economic and political climate. The realist in me can’t see them building any more sites.”
STAG itself is also struggling from the cuts. Southwark Council has removed their local funding so the group has had to halve its workforce. It is now completely reliant on the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
But in her caravan, the woman keeps hope.
“There’s some good and bad in everyone,” she says. “That’s all nationalities.”