If, as I do, you live in Patcham on the northern fringes of Brighton, you could be forgiven for believing that the most important issue facing our city is the Council’s planning application to provide twelve permanent pitches at the current travellers’ site at Horsdean, on the edge of the South Downs national park. The site currently contains 21 temporary pitches where travellers can currently stay for up to three months; the council has now submitted a proposal to the South Downs National Park Authority for the extension.
Travellers remain an emotive issue in our part of the city, with frequent illegal incursions into parks and other public open spaces. As well as denying amenities to local people, these incursions result in costs to the council. The only way to ensure that the needs both of the local housed populations and travellers is met is, quite obviously, to make properly-managed sites available. For a calm, rational explanation of why this is the case I don’t think I could do any better than this:
A single fixed site would reduce the number of unauthorised travellers’ encampments around the city.
The proposals are expected to substantially cut the waste and disruption caused by unauthorised camps and therefore reduce the cost to the council taxpayer.
They will also ensure the council fulfils its commitment to serving all sections of the community and meets the legal requirements handed down by the Government.
At the moment there is one authorised gypsy and traveller site in the city – at Horsdean.
This is a transit site which has 23 pitches providing temporary accommodation for up to 12 weeks.
The Horsdean site is provided to meet the needs of travellers who wish to visit the area and who would otherwise set up an unauthorised encampment.
This site does not meet the needs of gypsies and travellers who wish to live on a permanent site.
A new permanent site will help to meet the demand for pitches from gypsies and travellers with local connections who live permanently in the area but move from one unofficial site to another.
It will also put us in a stronger position to move on unauthorised camps.
Provision of more pitches in other areas of the South East will also reduce the number of gypsies and travellers moving around the region.
While some travellers want to retain a nomadic lifestyle, an increasing number wish to have a permanent base so their children can receive regular schooling and they can have access to health services like the rest of the community.
Most don’t want to be illegally occupying land and regularly facing the prospect of being moved on.
As I have already made clear, travellers living on a permanent site would pay rent and council tax like any other resident.
There are grants available from the Government which currently meet the full cost of providing any new permanent site in the city, with no cost to the council.
The rent charged would cover the maintenance and upkeep of the site.
A site manager would directly oversee and manage the site and refuse and recycling collections from the site would be made by the council’s Cityclean service.
The council would not hesitate to take strict enforcement action against any residents breaching site regulations as it would with anyone in a similar position.
Providing permanent spaces would cut down the number of unauthorised encampments – and reduce the cost to local council taxpayers of moving these on and then clearing up.
Experience in other areas shows the cost of enforcement and clearing up after unauthorised sites falls significantly where permanent pitches have been provided.
In Bristol, for example, these costs fell from £200,000 a year to under £5,000.
It should also be noted that where permanent sites are provided in other parts of the country, there is very little evidence of antisocial or illegal activities associated with them.
I thought that worth quoting at length because those are the words of Cllr Geoffrey Theobald – then Cabinet Member for Environment on Brighton and Hove City Council in 2008. He is now leader of the Conservative group on the Council, and long-serving city councillor for the Patcham ward.
The Conservative Party’s approach – in the face of the Horsdean proposal, backed by both the Green and Labour Groups – is now rather different; it is one of outright opposition, based around a claim that extending the Horsdean site would lead to groundwater contamination – a point explicitly addressed in the planning application, which contains proposals to connect the site to the city’s main sewerage network. But it is clear, from the rhetoric of Tories around the city, that Tory opposition to the plan goes deeper than a mere technical objection. A meeting organised by Hove MP Mike Weatherley two years ago cranked up the local rhetoric about travellers in a rather unpleasant way, despite assurances from the police that there was no evidence that the Horsdean site had led to increased crime in the district. Now, looking at the Twitter feeds of some local Tories, you would think that this was the only political issue in Brighton and Hove; so totemic has it become. And this flies in the face of history; as this blog post from local independent commentator (and independent candidate for Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner in last November’s elections) Ian Chisnall shows there is a long history of travellers and housed populations co-existing in the town.
The politics are curious. When I used Twitter to call the Tories’ suggestion that Patcham was “united” against the Horsdean extension, local Tory candidate Karen Miles replied that I obviously didn’t live in the ward; I’ve actually lived here, in the heart of Patcham Village, for ten years and claiming that your critics are outsiders is both ironic in the circumstances and does not strike me as being the cleverest of politics.
My own experience is that people in Patcham aren’t united and there is a diversity of views here that the Tories just don’t get. Explain the rationale for the site honestly and people’s perceptions change. In particular, the idea that 12 permanent traveller pitches is somehow a “threat” begins to look increasingly ridiculous.
We need to get past the rhetoric and deal with the facts. The extension at Horsdean is needed; it will benefit the city, and the communities on the northern edge of the city above all. The groundwater concern will be addressed by the planning inquiry, but it looks very much like an excuse; and the irony of the party that, less than five years ago, was threatening Patcham with a 600-space park and ride site does not need to read those of use who support extending Horsdean lectures on preserving the character of this part of the city. An opportunity for political leadership is being turned into lowest-common-denominator rhetoric-mongering. It’s not very edifying, and does the politicians concerned little credit.
And Patcham deserves better than this.