How housing associations can support Gypsy and Traveller communities

Boris Worrall and Jo Richardson, 11 December 2019

Social housing providers are incredibly well placed to deliver accommodation, support and a sense of pride to Gypsy and Traveller communities. 

Gypsy. Traveller. Take a minute to think about what you hear said about this community. Then imagine what it’s like to grow up as a kid and teenager facing that kind of stigma. Imagine being effectively labelled and put in a box by society by the time you are 10. Imagine leaving school at 12 to go to work, or help with household chores because that is what has always been expected. This can be the reality of life for many Gypsy and Traveller teenagers on sites. Historical cultural and community expectations and a resistance or ability of some schools to effectively engage with these youngsters means they have lower educational achievement and therefore major barriers to opportunity and life chances. They also face barriers to making their voices heard, against the backdrop of a powerful prevailing negative society stereotype.

We must, and can, do more to meet the needs and aspirations of Gypsies and Travellers. The two of us met not long after the publication of research undertaken by De Montfort University, for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We both knew we wanted to do something more with the findings and we knew that local authorities, and housing associations like Rooftop and others, would want to step up. So, we established a housing providers advisory forum to take a different approach – looking at a supply side of what we could do to deliver, rather than the traditional demand side, needs-based approach to the debate. Rooftop was one of the providers with good practice examples cited in the JRF research, but we knew others would want to join in the discussion. Our policy advisory forum has been meeting every couple of months for nearly two years now.  Last year, we launched a short film at the CIH 2018 conference fringe included the narrated poetry of Damian Le Bas – we wanted to share Gypsies and Travellers feelings around the meaning of home, as part of an aim to reduce stigma. 

This year there has been a fantastic project, which resulted from a chat with Rooftop specialist neighbourhood officer Tony Henderson one day on site, it was decided something ought to be done to help amplify the voices of young Gypsies and Travellers. So, the idea for a joint Arts Council and Travellers Times film project about Gypsy Lives was born. Rooftop wanted a way to give these young people a voice and involve them in education in a way which would appeal and excite a group not as used to traditional classroom environments as the wider population. The result is a stunning short film made by a group of young people from Rooftop sites about their lives which is being premiered at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham this month.

With Gypsy Traveller author and film-maker Damian Le Bas they spent two weeks exploring film, story-telling and the art of graffiti in Birmingham’s famous cultural quarter of Digbeth and the Custard Factory. The result is a powerful short film which gives a fascinating insight into their lives, hopes and dreams, illustrating both similarities and differences. Crucially, we hope it has helped to encourage and inspire them as individuals to stretch their horizons, embrace learning and face the future with more confidence about who they are and why they can be proud of where they have come from and where they go next. The film is available now, online.  

Our housing advisory forum has also shared ideas between councils and housing associations on delivery, and we have heard from councils who have recently built and opened new sites.  We have also talked about a number of ideas for further research to explore the current challenges in planning for new sites, and indeed one project has just commenced. Through their Housing Advisers Programme, the Local Government Association have funded a short research project, being project-led by Mid-Devon planning authority who have commissioned De Montfort University in Leicester to undertake the work. The research team, between now and early Spring, will talk with planners, developers and other stakeholders, to establish the key barriers that local planning authorities face in negotiating inclusion of Gypsy Traveller sites in local plans – most particularly in urban extension areas. The researchers are keen to talk with a range of people across the country. 

If you are interested in this research please do take a look at our short survey online or contact Jo. We hope to share a summary of the findings in a short report upon conclusion of the research, in the early Spring 2020.