Members of the Gypsy community say they are subject to abuse, even racism, and should be allowed the chance of a home like everyone else. Chris Webber found out more.

ROMANI Gypsy sisters, Julie and Bridget Sample, sit on the doorstep of their everyday, modern Darlington home and tell their dreams of the open air life, a life they say is denied to them.

“Our mother was born in an old-fashioned Gypsy caravan,” says single mother-of-four Julia. “Mam and dad would cook outside every night on wood, we’d stay in a country area, a place with a stream and trees.

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“But we can’t do that any more. Whenever we stopped anywhere there was hassle. The police and the council people would be called and we’d be moved on. In those circumstances you need a settled place.”

Bridget, who lives with her sister about 400 yards from Darlington’s Honeypot Lane council-run Gypsy site, says it took her about 12 months to get used to living in a house. She worries that the younger generation are losing their culture living so close to the settled community.

But she says that Gypsies, especially Romanis, are misunderstood and discriminated against instead of being treated with the respect they deserve.

“We get on with our neighbours and we have loads of respect. We always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the shop, although I do think some of the younger ones are less respectful than we were.

“We get abuse, get hawkers shouted at us, but people see we’re clean and respectful. We should be left alone and allowed to have somewhere to live like anyone else. It’s a very old-fashioned culture. Women like us can’t drink in public, have affairs and we’re very clean. It’s a good culture.”

Neighbours also living around L’anson Street and Spring Hill, off Whessoe Road, agreed they had little trouble from the nearby Gypsy site.

One mother-of-two, who nevertheless declined to give her name, said she not experienced any bother at all in nine years.

Dennis Edwards, who said he knew some Gypsies and got on with them, did say there was some low level anti-social behaviour including youngsters running around the estate and racing around on motorbikes, but nothing serious.

Police had blocked off the entrance to Honeypot Lane before, but it had not affected anyone he knew.

Joseph Jones, chairman of Britain’s Gypsy Council, argued it was unduly hard for Gypsies to win planning applications for accommodation and yet the wider community also wanted temporary sites closed.

He said Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Local Government, had personally overseen “many” applications for Gypsy sites and had turned them all down, bar one.

Mr Jones revealed that an estimated 250,000 Gypsies and travellers from Eastern Europe, including Romania, were already living in the UK and that was likely to rise putting more pressure on accommodation.

“But those Gypsies will eventually become English Gypsies. You get people who regard themselves as upstanding members of the community standing outside planning committees with banners that are basically racist. In the future historians will look back on how Gypsies were treated with astonishment.

"You wouldn’t have Big Fat Pakistani Wedding on the telly, it wouldn’t even be thought of, and we just want to be treated with the respect given to other minorities.”