Without urgent action, the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community will “continue to be treated like second class citizens in Wales” according to the Senedd’s Local Government and Housing Committee. This followed a recent inquiry undertaken by the Committee on the provision of sites for the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community.
The Committee found that the situation facing traveller communities in Wales was “concerning”, and highlighted inaction by both the Welsh Government and local authorities in ensuring the provision of sufficient culturally appropriate sites in Wales.
The Senedd will debate the Committee’s report and recommendations on Wednesday 23 November. This article should be considered alongside the Welsh Government’s recently published Anti-racist Wales Action Plan which seeks to address aspects relating to a “lack of site provision and poor quality of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in Wales”.
Are local authorities meeting their statutory duties?
Local authorities in Wales have been required by law since 2014 to both assess the accommodation need of the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community, and to meet that identified need. Gypsies and Travellers Wales noted that Wales, through the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, is seen to be “trying to instil legislation and policies that are positive” for the travelling community. The Welsh Government also has powers to direct a local authority to meet the needs identified in its assessment, if it is apparent it has failed to do so.
Stakeholders generally view the legislative and policy framework that supports the development of sites for the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community in Wales as robust and principled. The Committee heard however there is frustration over its implementation and delivery locally. Travelling Ahead, a key stakeholder supporting Gypsy, Roma and traveller families told the Committee that families question whether the duty to meet traveller accommodation needs is “worth the paper that it’s written on”, with little in the way of results on the ground.
The Committee heard evidence that not one local authority has done what the frameworks sets out to achieve. Gypsies and Travellers Wales asserts that one of the biggest failures of the legislation is that “local authorities are not being held to account, where they’re not meeting the needs and meeting the duties as set out”. The Committee concluded that the Welsh Government should prioritise improving accountability and monitoring.
The Committee argued that more effective and robust monitoring arrangements are required if sufficient progress is to be made. It recommends that the Welsh Government “tightens its monitoring arrangements and hold local authorities to account if they are not fulfilling their statutory duties”.
Finding a place to call home
Local authorities highlighted the challenges they face in finding suitable sites that meet the need of the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community, including issues relating to acquiring land and planning.
The lack of suitable land and limited progress on developing new sites increases the pressure on existing provision. The Committee’s report states that sites are often overcrowded and in “desperate need of repair”. Many sites are without appropriate facilities for the young, often located in inappropriate places, far from local services and in areas considered to generate the “least hostility”. The Committee report notes that too often traveller communities find themselves next to busy A roads and infrastructure, depriving the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community of any connection to the natural environment.
The Committee describes this situation as “unacceptable”, a view shared by the Minister for Social Justice who asserted that it was “totally unacceptable to have them [sites] beside busy roads and inappropriately not located near schools”. The Committee notes an “urgent need to work with the communities” to understand what is “right and appropriate for them”.
Not all families wish to live on a local authority sites, with many seeking their own parcel of land to set up home. Too often, however, families face costly legal battles with very little support to navigate the planning system. It’s an area the Committee wishes to see more work and progress on from the Welsh Government to help families with the specialist advice needed. The Welsh Government has committed to commission a three-year pilot programme to provide trusted, independent advice to people looking to develop private sites in Wales.
What is the Anti-racist Wales Action Plan and how will it help?
The Anti-racist Wales Action Plan sets out a vision for an anti-racist Wales by 2030. It was developed in collaboration with a wide range of communities, including the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community. The Action Plan states that people in this community in particular often find themselves on the:
margins of society and face racism, including restrictions on their life choices and being denied culturally appropriate accommodation.
It was a theme the Committee heard throughout the inquiry, with Travelling Ahead stating that “some of the things that have gone on locally and regionally would not be acceptable if that was about any other group, or any other group of citizens or any other ethnic minority.”
The Action Plan sets out to:
- create a national network of transit provision to facilitate travelling life;
- review current funding policy for Gypsy, Roma and traveller sites;
- revise guidance to ensure the design and location needs of communities are better reflected; and
- ensure existing legal mechanisms are fully utilised to ensure compliance with legislation.
Despite welcoming the Action Plan, the Committee remained unconvinced that the commitments in it “will improve the situation”. Its recommendations for the Welsh Government include:
- setting out a timescale for evaluating the effectiveness of the Plan in helping to provide sites for Gypsies Roma and travellers; and
- including community councillors within training programmes for elected members on “Gypsy and Traveller communities’ culture, needs and strengths”.
Actions speak louder than words
The Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt MS accepted all 21 of the Committee’s recommendations, noting that they’re “in line with our current and future plans”.
One recommendation called on the Welsh Government to explain how it will use its powers to ensure that local authorities deliver on their duties. The Minister said the Welsh Government is committed to work co-operatively with local authorities to support the development of “robust plans that meet the needs of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers”. So far, there seems to be little movement towards using Ministerial powers to compel a local authority to meet its assessed need where it has failed to do so. However, calls to use such powers may increase if authorities fail to comply with the duty in future.
According to a member of the traveller community giving evidence to the Committee, “Wales […] leads with the policy and with the diversity and with equality and the emphasis on culture and tradition”. Yet, at a local level, it too often “feels like the memo’s been missed”.
And here lies the challenge for the Welsh Government – despite establishing what is considered a relatively robust legislative and policy framework to enable progress, if it fails to translate into tangible outcomes locally, the Gypsy, Roma and traveller communities will, as Race Alliance Wales noted, feel like “the Welsh Government has failed them”.
Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament