The big story in Surrey Heath this week has been an unauthorised traveller incursion in Heatherside Recreation Ground. Indeed, the front page of this week’s Camberley News & Mail says, “Travellers leave “chaos” at rec” followed by, “Rubbish and human waste left at recreation ground will cost £10,000 to clear away.”
These sorts of headlines are understandable albeit depressing to read. Why? Because it wrongly and unfairly condemns an entire ethnic minority for the selfish conduct of a few.
There appears to be 3 main concerns so let’s deal with these in turn.
(a) Unauthorised incursion namely that people set up a camp when not allowed to do this.
It is absolutely true that this situation should not have occurred and that the 30 or so caravans should not have been there. Residents are right to express concern about security. However, whilst saying this, it is important to try and understand why this might occur and try to understand the issue as a whole.
Travellers generally “travel” in extended family units especially throughout the summer. Many will visit various events with the main ones being the Epsom Derby and the Appleby Fayre. In this case, it has been reported that one member of the group was heavily pregnant and whilst I don’t know if this was true, incursions tend to occur in this type of event or where a group member has serious illness. What tends to happen is that they “camp” near a hospital until the health situation is resolved and then move on after a few days generally just before authorities take enforcement action against them anyway.
So whilst it is absolutely correct to take enforcement action, the problem is the breach of planning regulations and not the ethnic group of the people breaking them. Put another way, is it just gypsies and travellers that break planning regs? Of course not, most Councils regularly have to deal with retrospective planning applications or where developers have failed to build something as agreed. The real question is do we act with the same vigour when dealing with these breaches or just those of travellers?
We should also consider that Surrey Heath has a recognised shortage of 18 gypsy and traveller pitches and the Council appear to have no obvious plan to address this.
(b) Litter and flytipping left behind
Again, I have no truck with flytippers and litterbugs and it is right to highlight the financial cost of this.
However, one of the main reasons why there tends to be litter and flytipping left after an incursion is because very often, they are not provided with a refuse service, skips or litterbins. Travellers are no different to anyone else in that they generate rubbish both personally and in relation to the work that they do. However, whilst the “settled community” would have a weekly bin collection from their house, travellers on the road don’t. Most Councils provide skips and bins (charged to the occupiers) in recognition of this in order to reduce the environmental damage that occurs although I don’t know whether this occurred in Heatherside. If not, I would definitely recommend this for any future incursion that may occur in the borough.
In addition, despite myths to the contrary, a caravan used by a Gypsy or Traveller would generally be extremely clean inside. Part of this is historic but it has to be clean for practical and health reasons too. Therefore, people do not want to keep any rubbish inside their properties at all especially things like food waste so it gets dumped outside generally away from caravans hence why it ends up in hedges and fields.
This rightly causes anger in communities where it occurs because of the excessive litter and flytipping and the clear-up costs. However, whilst £10k and around 25 tons of rubbish sounds a large amount, it’s worth putting that in context with the amounts that we spend clearing up litter and rubbish from Camberley Town Centre every single day. Imagine what would happen if we didn’t have bins and cleaners in our town centre for a week or our local parks or our streets…would they remain spotless or would they quickly become a dumping ground with litter strewn everywhere and rubbish bags all over the place? Would that be the fault of gypsies and travellers or the fault of some selfish people of all backgrounds in all communities?
3. Human waste
As highlighted earlier, caravans tend to be extremely clean and for this reason would quite often not have a toilet facility. We may find this strange but for some cultures particularly those within the Gypsy and some traveller communities, the idea of a toilet in the caravan would be considered “dirty” and even on official pitches, their toilet and bathroom would be in a different external area and not in their caravan.
So whilst human waste in public areas is obviously disgusting and deeply unpleasant, the fact is that everyone needs to use the toilet on a regular basis. Again, the best way to resolve this during an incursion is to arrange a temporary toilet facility for occupiers. This is a cost but ultimately far cheaper than cleaning up public areas and far less unpleasant for local residents.
Of course, it’s not just members of this community that may produce human waste in public. If you go into a town centre at a weekend, it’s not uncommon to see people urinate or defecate in more secluded areas or being sick all over the pavement. And if we are really honest, how many times have any one of us been “caught short” when out in the countryside and decided to have a pee or a poo behind a tree? If we are going to criticise people for using public areas as a toilet then travellers are hardly the only people in society who do this and perhaps we should all be humble enough to recognise that.
Society has now moved on and the fight for equality has meant that many people are no longer stigmatised to the same extent as even 20 years ago. The vast majority consider that it is no longer acceptable to criticise someone on the grounds of their colour, their race or their sexuality but yet there still seems to be a way to go when it comes to gypsies and travellers. I doubt we would have seen a headline, “White British men and women leave “chaos” in rec” or “Irish people leave “chaos” in rec” so why have we mentioned travellers?
Personally I think we need to do a lot more to build community understanding such as explaining why certain traditions or problems occur and the impact of these to all. By taking some simple practical steps, we can ensure that both local residents and visiting “travellers” then get the support they need.