The battle between Gypsies, Travellers and the settled community over how land can be used has moved to the Green Belt, observes Peter Kabachnik of the City University of New York.
Writing in the Journal of Cultural Geography, Kabachnik notes that the current shortage of authorised caravan sites has led to one-third of the country's nomadic population having no 'legal place to live'. As a result, many travellers purchase, settle on and often get evicted from Green Belt land.
He observes: "These choices make Gypsies highly visible, as the land they are asserting their right to is more valuable, both economically and aesthetically, than the stopping places that were once more commonly used."
These choices can also lead to conflict, but they demonstrate an increased sense of 'agency' among the travelling community, too; with few other options, many nomads are now challenging and resisting established norms and power relations 'one caravan pitch at a time'.
To understand the travelling community's experiences, Kabachnik conducted dozens of interviews. Here he draws heavily on the account of the extended 'Jones' family whose legal disputes with the council after developing a Green Belt site without permission – and subsequent evictions – are described in great detail. With 90% of planning applications made by Gypsies and Travellers denied in the first instance as opposed to 20% of those from the settled community, many families now own land they cannot live on.
Kabachnik argues that both more legal caravan sites and changes in the law are needed to reduce tensions between the settled and travelling communities. Since 1994, the travelling way of life has essentially been criminalised in England and Wales.
He concludes: "The laws and its application serve to structure nomad-sedentary relations, and the current legal sedentarist regime constructs those relations as adversarial … As it stands, racist hostility is enabled, produced and fuelled by the illegal status of Gypsies and travellers. The fact that Gypsies and Travellers are technically breaking the law legitimizes the fervent intolerance of many English townspeople."
Traditionally seen as out of place in the city but also now not wanted in the countryside, many nomads are fighting for more than just the right to a home; they're also fighting for a 'right to a place'. Kabachnik's study offers a unique perspective on this fight: that of the nomads themselves, not the media or local residents determined to drive them out, wherever they are.
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"Where can we put our homes?" Gypsies and Travelers in the English Green Belt", by Peter Kabachnik, Journal of Cultural Geography, 2014, published by Taylor & Francis Group. DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2014.941140