This week we heard the tragic story of a retired businessman who killed himself and his wife having told friends he was deeply worried about the fact that his rural neighbourhood had been surrounded, at the local council’s behest, by officially designated ‘traveller’ camp sites.
Which do you think is the most likely explanation for poor John Knott’s radical and desperate measure?
a) he had a pathological aversion to lovely, colourful people in their brightly painted, horse-drawn caravans with their rich cultural heritage, deep understanding of rural lore and their fine traditions of coloured-headscarf-and-hoop-earring-wearing, crystal-ball-gazing, heather-sprig-selling, fiddle-playing, horse-bartering jollity
b) he was a racist, that’s what he was, a racist who’d been taken in by all those appalling myths about the well-loved Roma people and Irish Traveller folk and is probably the kind of person who votes UKIP
c) he’d retired to what he thought was a rural idyll only to realise that by government fiat about £125,000 was going to be knocked off the value of his property, he’d never be able to leave his doors unlocked, his neighbouring fields would be filled with stagnant rubbish, there’d never be any peace by day or night, and he’d constantly have to worry about semi-literate urchins pilfering his toolshed and defecating in his hedgerows, while their feckless parents badgered him every other day explaining they’d got a bit of gravel left over from another job and did he want his drive tarmacked?
Well, obviously it couldn’t have been c) because under Tony Blair’s hate crime laws that would have constituted an offence which might have landed Knott in prison. So it must have been one of the others, clearly.
But it is slightly odd, don’t you think, that whenever – literally 100 per cent of the time on all occasions, ever – a gipsy/traveller/Roma encampment descends on a particular area, the response of all those living there tends to be less than enthusiastic; and that the longer that encampment manages to stay in place the more frantically desperate the local community grows to get rid of them?
Pure racism, I suppose.
Except here’s a thing. If you go to Ireland, whence many of these ‘traveller’ communities emanate, I think you’ll find that they are not – do correct me if I’m wrong – granted special ethnic status or peculiar legal privileges.
That’s why so many of them have left Ireland (where they own houses: the kind of things they’re theoretically supposed to hate living in because it’s their ‘tradition’) to take advantage of Britain’s more enlightened approach to the “traveller community” – as framed in official documents like this called Planning Policy For Traveller Sites.
Under these planning regulations, local councils are legally obliged to provide sites for traveller encampments.
It explains at the beginning:
“The Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for travellers.”
But clearly – you can tell this document was drafted by a Liberal Democrat – “fair and equal treatment” is precisely what these travellers are NOT being given.
On the contrary, they are being granted privileges over and above those accorded so-called “settled” communities. Some of these privileges are official (eg this allocation of “free” land for them to park their vehicles on, regardless of how their new neighbours might feel about this incursion). Some of them are unofficial. (Apparently, for example, you’ll never get the RSPCA intervening where it turns out that stray horses grazing willy-nilly belong to travellers).
This injustice was the subject in 2013 of a private members bill by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone, who in his speech to the House refused to mince his words:
Members may not realise that local residents have told me, on the basis of police evidence, that many distraction burglaries are undertaken by members of the Gypsy and Traveller community. It is a speciality of theirs. Likewise, farmers and rural dwellers are, frankly, terrorised at the theft of, and damage to, farm equipment and rural properties. The idea that these sites could be set up near to long-established communities both within towns and villages is bringing a huge amount of distress to my local residents.
Hollobone can say stuff like that under parliamentary privilege. The rest of us, unfortunately, have to be more careful – not least because there’s a particularly tenacious gipsy grievance lobby ready to pounce on any perceived injustice against their wholly delightful, thoroughly law-abiding and not remotely antisocial, whiny, vulgar, rapacious community of exquisitely dressed and superbly well-educated model citizens.
But it is a bizarre situation we’ve got, isn’t it?
One of the most basic obligations of any government is the protection of its citizens’ property rights. And one of the most basic principles of English common law is that everyone is equal before it.
Yet as regards travellers we have planning laws which flagrantly breach both of the above.
An alien landing from space would marvel at such an arrangement. “These traveller people must be very special to have been granted such privileges,” he might well wonder. “They must bring especial richness and joy and abundance to the communities they visit! They must pay vast sums in taxes to compensate for all the money councils seem to spend on policing and rehousing operations! They must be particularly law-abiding and morally upstanding! Their travelling traditions must be especially reverend and noteworthy for them to be protected in this way!”
“No, no,” you’d have to explain to the alien. “None of your assumptions are quite accurate. It’s more that, well, someone somewhere decided that they ought to be a protected minority whose special way of life needs preserving, even at the expense of everyone else, and no one in authority, not even Conservatives who are supposed to care about the country, has quite had the gumption to change it.”
“But aren’t burglars are also minority with a special way of life lived at the expense of everyone else? Aren’t locusts?” the alien might reply.
“Now you’re getting there…” you could say.