If it becomes law, residing on land without permission would be a criminal offence, threatening a way of life for communities across the UK by Harriet Grant
“Iam worried that not everyone knows what is coming,” says Amy, sitting in the truck she has turned into a cosy home for her and her two children. “If this bill is passed it will mean the end of our culture. The end of our way of life.”
Amy, who wanted to be known by her first name, lives with her two sons on a small Travellers’ site down a quiet country lane in the west of England, along the edges of an ancient forest.
Despite the wheels on everyone’s homes, there is a feeling of permanence here. Amy’s neighbours are busy gardening in the sunshine, tyres are filled with plants, wood is stacked in piles ready to be made into more planters. In every corner, life is blooming.
But for Amy, and many others, this way of life is under threat. Gypsies and Travellers are preparing to rally as the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill gets a step closer to being passed into law. If passed, section 4 of the bill, which has its third reading in the Commons this week, will make “residing or intending to reside on land without the permission of the owner or occupier” a new criminal offence.
Amy started a podcast entitled “I choose the road” in an attempt to sound the alarm. “I started to think about how I could get the news out there to other Travellers about what was happening. People might not know their homes could be taken away and they could even go to prison.”
Amy and her neighbours aren’t on the land legally, but “the owners tolerate us for now. I don’t know what will happen once the bill passes, though”. None of the Travellers interviewed by the Guardian wanted to include their full name for fear of being traceable by the authorities.
Across the UK many Travellers live like this, finding fields where they will be quietly tolerated, in breach of planning and housing regulations. Others move much more frequently, having to find somewhere new every few days.
Amy took to the road in the 90’s, after getting involved in a Travellers’ road protest in Ireland as a teenager and living largely in vehicles ever since. “We are known as ‘New Travellers’. We don’t have ethnic heritage but I’ve done this for many years … [The name] allows us to claim our identity without stepping on other people’s.”
For Amy and her neighbour, Jess, living this way is a commitment to an alternative way of life, outside the structures of capitalism.
“It’s about a simpler life,” says Amy, “a life closer to nature where you can hear the rain on the roof, where you don’t need as much money so you can be with your children more. And it’s about community, because living on a Traveller site and raising children here is like living in an old-fashioned village.”
Jess is pottering around outside her van, which is surrounded by the detritus of a creative life. It’s filled with fabric and craft materials and hula-hoops lie all around it. The Traveller community has deep connections to the creative side of British festivals and she hopes to be back on the scene this summer. For now, she is ready to fight for her way of life against the police bill.
“I grew up on a council estate in Wales and I moved to town when I left home and thought ‘oh yes, this is just as bad as I thought it would be’, just depressing and lonely. I realise now what I was searching for was community,” says Jess, who did not want to give her surname.
If this bill passes, she says, “we will be the last generation. I will just keep moving … until they take my vehicle, I don’t have other options in my back pocket. I feel fucking petrified and also angry. People worry about Travellers turning up in their area, but where is the common land? You are taking away my animal freedom to be on this planet. It’s wiping out a culture.”
In the south of England, another Jess lives in converted horsebox and rides a large motorbike. Lately, she has been spending time on Facebook, sharing her story of decades on the road and encouraging others to tell their stories. “Travellers don’t like to draw attention to themselves, but I believe this is a time when it’s urgent to share our stories, our culture and history.”
Jess chose this way of life to be closer to nature. “I don’t even like to sit in the van … it’s just so I can be as close to nature as possible. The doors are always open, I’m always outside. There is a real push towards cultural homogeneity, through the media you are told – think this way, judge people like this. People don’t understand why I would choose this life, but for me it’s sanity. A simple lifestyle close to the earth that doesn’t tax resources and is sustainable on a small income. ”
Today she is parked up at the top of the South Downs, her truck doors wide open. Like Amy, she took to the road in the 90s, as protest camps and rave culture brought people on to the road.
“When I was younger I had a breakdown and pieced my health back together in Ireland and that is where I met people living on the road, including a world of horse-drawn vehicles. It was eye-opening, I thought, ‘oh my God I don’t have to go home, I can live camping’.
“I worked in agriculture, from farm to farm both here and in Europe. Being outside working was good for my mental health. I had choices and I chose it all.”
Jess can’t say where she has been parked recently because it’s barely legal. Many Travellers are on edge, worried constantly about being tracked down and fined by local authorities.
“During lockdown they left us alone’ says Jess. “But before that I was parking my truck all over Brighton or out in the South Downs. I recently got about three section 77s (a legal order to remove a vehicle) stuck on my windscreen. They say ‘you are believed to be residing in a vehicle on the side of the highway and you need to move in the shortest time practicable’.”
“As it stands right now, it is a civil offence – I can move my truck to another place and they mostly leave you alone. You stay a few nights somewhere, take fines in your stride, it’s a hazard of the lifestyle.”
The law will bring a major hardening, from civil to criminal offence. “If this law is enforced they could immediately arrest me, stick me in a police car, take me to the station and destroy my truck.”
Travellers aren’t welcome on the campsites that ordinary holidaymakers might visit. “There are legalities around living on a campsite, they are expensive and they don’t like our vehicles. The special sites set up by councils are full.”
Jess is a confident woman and feels she can speak up if others are too worried to. “Tell me why I shouldn’t live this way? I look after my parents – I work, I pay tax, why do I have to live in a bloody house?”
In Bristol, Luke saw Jess’s message and thought the time had come to speak up. He is part of a group of Travellers who move around the south-west, currently awaiting eviction from a site they broke into and looking at where they can hide next.
“What are we supposed to do? Squatting is gone, soon this will go – just all means of subsistence are being criminalised. You can’t just be.”
Luke is a full-time carer for young people with disabilities, but doesn’t want to live in an ordinary house. “Nomadism is for me. I like sitting round the campfire, I like digging holes, chopping wood. I need community – I was on my own for a very very long time and – when I got into squatting it was like getting into a warm bath, I don’t really want to give up that communal element.”
He is very concerned about the possible further powers that would allow police to seize vehicles on the spot. “If that happens, I’ll just go back to sleeping in a tent in the wood.”
Earlier this month the high court ruled that local authorities can no longer issue blanket injunctions against “persons unknown” to stop Gypsies and Travellers stopping on local land. In recent years the injunctions were widely used to prevent people stopping even if they were new to the area. Campaigners and lawyers plan to use human rights laws to push back against the bill.
For Luke the constant pressure to move on and stay out of sight is stressful. “The whole time we are keeping an eye on where we can go next. Then on the day we move it’s stressful wondering will it happen, how long will we have there.”
He says his life deserves respect. “There is attention on van lifers, young yuppies and that’s fine. But there are some of us who are not photogenic or erudite who have not got other choices. We are out here living in dilapidated caravans and helping each other out. I would like it to be a matter of record that we existed, some of us who clawed our way out of the filth to get here and even that is being taken away from us.”