A COMMUNITY in the region is the latest to get to grips with a Government directive to provide more gypsy and traveller sites. Chris Webber found out more.

COMMUNITY leaders have expressed concern at the possibility of up to six new gypsy and traveller sites could be created in their midst, along with more across the entire region.

Stockton Borough Council is due to discuss the need to accommodate at least 26 new pitches across six sites at two meetings tomorrow.

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But Stockton is only the latest area in the North-East and North Yorkshire to deal with a Government requirement to deal with the issue.

Middlesbrough, Durham County Council and Ryedale, in North Yorkshire, have already extended existing council-run gypsy sites. Others, including Hambleton, in the Northallerton and Stokesley area, are currently looking at the possibility of new private sites.

Hartlepool council, had identified a new gypsy site in the village of Hart but last year controversially withdrew its entire draft Local Plan in order to reassess the need for any site following major protests. Hartlepool is unusual as it has now has no existing council or private sites and none planned.

There were also major protests in Darlington last year at plans to effectively double the size of a gypsy land plot on Neasham Road.

Stockton council, which already has a council-run 28-pitch site on Bowesfield Lane and at least two smaller, private ones within its borders, will consider the potential of another six sites at both its planning committee and cabinet committee tomorrow although no final decision will be made. 

A public consultation exercise is scheduled from Monday, February 3 to Monday, March 17 and will be completed before any final decision is made.

The Stockton council plan has proven to be especially controversial in Thornaby where two potential gypsy sites have been identified, one on Eltham Crescent and one between the River Tees and Thornaby Road.

Steve Walmsley, leader of the Thornaby Independent Association, said it was “unbelievable” that out of 1,000 sites initially identified, Thornaby still had two. He said: “It’s nothing bigoted. I don’t care what colour or race anybody is, or if they’re polka-dot. Live and live as long as they abide by society’s rules like everyone else. But both the sites identified are in deprived areas and this is going to cause more concern.”

Other sites shortlisted in the Stockton area are land to the rear of Roddmere, Yarm Back Lane, near Hartburn, Frederick Street, Stockton, between Bowesfield Crescent and the Tees, Stockton and Mill Lane, Billingham. Mark Chatburn, UKIP councillor for Yarm, is asking for a list of all sites considered and reasons why they were ruled out.

Billy Welch, a well-known campaigner for gypsy rights based in Darlington, said genuine Romani gypsies were often badly misunderstood and could be an asset to any community.

Carol Straughan, head of planning at Stockton Borough Council, explains a local authority's obligations towards travellers

The Northern Echo:

EVERY council in the country has to identify suitable sites and there will be an “extensive” consultation process.

In Stockton, a thorough assessment process has already been undertaken which identified the need for 26 additional pitches for gypsies and travellers in the next 15 years.

The council does not plan to develop or run the sites, merely to allocate the land as potential sites in its local plan if there is interest in developing extra accommodation for gypsies.

Of course, that interest may never actually materialise but if we do not allocate enough land in our plans it is likely that they would be found to be unsound. The consequences would be serious and far reaching.

Instead of a planned approach to development, any location in the borough could then be subject to a planning application to develop a gypsy and traveller site and our failure to identify suitable sites would severely hamper our ability to prevent it.

There is often a misunderstanding when it comes to the difference between unauthorised encampments and privately-owned sites which offer a permanent home to members of the gypsy community.

Most people will have seen media coverage of the problems associated with unauthorised encampments, such as fly-tipping, rubbish and noise as they are very well-documented.

In contrast, gypsies and travellers living on local authority or privately-owned sites pay Council Tax, rent, gas, electricity, and all other charges in the same way as other households.

Five of the six identified sites are on council-owned land because, despite the authority seeking help from landowners and the travelling community, none was forthcoming.

Their inclusion on the shortlist is not necessarily an endorsement of the suitability or acceptability of the sites for gypsy or traveller needs, nor does it imply any council support for its allocation.

Tomorrow: The gypsy dilemma: for and against