The controversial issue of Gipsy and traveller sites has been revisited in Newport with a new review looking at the whole subject again. DAVID DEANS investigates.
NEWPORT council’s new Labour administration is revisiting the controversial issue of Gipsy traveller sites.
But at least one anti-site campaigner has expressed fears that nothing may change as a result.
Meanwhile, a representative of the Gipsy community has said that the council should set out to get a result out of the review – and not set out to fail. While an opposition councillor said he couldn’t see how the sites could be assessed within the short time-scale.
Last month, the Argus reported that the council had effectively scrapped a shortlist of five potential sites – in Bettws, Lliswerry and Marshfield wards – that was agreed up by the previous administration.
It has put the issue to a group of councillors known as a scrutiny committee.
The committee is to review a new long list of sites – which may include some of the old shortlist – and speak to members of the public to consider the sites suggested and suggest their own alternatives.
Newport council, under Welsh Government rules, has to identify both permanent and transit sites for inclusion in the Local Development Plan.
This means the work by the scrutiny committee for community planning and development needs to be completed by September, to meet the LDP timetable.
Labour had argued in opposition that the shortlisted sites should be removed from the LDP, that there had been no public consultation and that a committee should look at the viability of the more than 200 plus sites on the original long list.
Recently elected independent councillor for Bettws Kevin Whitehead was among the estate’s residents who campaigned against a proposal for one of the shortlisted sites, at Yew Tree Cottage.
Residents have expressed concerns about access to and from the site, which is still occupied.
Cllr Whitehead said the new council had not said that any site such as Yew Tree Cottage had been totally scrapped.
“I think its going to be exactly the same sites submitted.
“I don’t think there will be any change, just this time there will be a consultation process,” he said.
But despite his reservations, Cllr Whitehead said he did welcome the review, where he believed “voices can be heard properly”.
“We’ve played this waiting game for this new administration to make its move. It’s a positive move at least.
“The infrastructure of Bettws could be better off with £2million spent to bring it into the 21st Century.
“It’s about having that £2m on our ageing facilities that we’ve got out here.
“This estate has around 16,000 residents.”
Cllr Whitehead said the Say No to the Permanent and Temporary Traveller Site on Bettws campaign was very worried about being perceived as racist.
Cllr Whitehead said he refused an interview with Radio Wales where a traveller would be featured for that very reason.
“It’s not about race or who these people are. It’s about issues over the site, ” he said.
Chris Warman, also of the Bettws campaign, welcomed the review and said he believed the shortlist was originally drawn up “behind closed doors”.
“As a person living in Bettws, I can only see it as a good thing,” he said.
“It gives us the clarity and transparency as to why certain sites were allowed to be selected and certain sites were not.
“Everyone has got to be accountable.
The council are elected by us. If they make a decision, they have to be transparent about the procedure.
“They can’t possibly think they can do everything behind closed doors.”
Three sites in Nash were proposed in the shortlist drawn up by the previous administration.
Tony Ducroq, councillor of Nash Community Council, said his community needed to be consulted.
Around 400 people had attended meetings in Nash to discuss the local development plan, and the same number had signed a petition that would be handed in if the matter got to formal planning.
Two of the shortlisted Nash sites, in Broad Street Common, are said to be in a rural area.
Cllr Ducroq said: “Our objections are not against Gipsies. We are against sites in a rural area.
If they put sites in Nash, it will virtually double the size of the village.
“That goes against planning principles on the impact on rural communities.
“I’m hoping they will put the traveller sites at places that suit the travellers and give them the amenities that they need, to the least cost to the taxpayer.
“As a community, they should consult with us."
Political posturing, or transparency?
UNDER the review, the Labour administration is taking the decision back to square one, according to Allan Morris, a Labour councillor who serves the ward of Lliswerry.
Cllr Morris, whose ward covers Nash, is one of the group that will be conducting the review.
He said traveller camps were an extremely emotive subject: “Whatever the decision that is taken, it has to be taken fairly, above board, with total transparency.
“What is happening is that the entire decision is being taken back to square one and with all sites being looked at. All potential sites are being reconsidered.”
He said the way the decision was taken on the previous shortlist “had a very nasty smell to it”.
“It’s not going to happen that there will be some sort of cover-up.”
However, a council opposition leader – who led the previous administration that decided the short list – expressed scepticism that the group would be able to assess all the available sites in the short time it has.
Matthew Evans, leader of the Conservative group at the council, said he was “extremely sceptical” about it.
“Its extremely difficult, almost a nightmare to identify suitable sites. We recognise that we were forced into doing it whether we liked it or not. But you have to take a decision and that is what you get elected for.
“I can’t see how in a period of eight weeks they will be able to do a proper assessment of all the sites.”
He said the council couldn’t afford to delay the LDP process, as that could cost thousands.
“I just think it’s a bit of political posturing, to be honest,”
But Cllr Morris said: “It’s just two months, but most of the sites will be obvious noncontenders, but at least people will see the reasons why they are non-contenders, that’s where the transparency will come in.
“What’s left after the initial sift will be closely scrutinised.
“If those some (of the old shortlisted) sites are still in the pot so be it, but at least it will be done fairly and openly.”
‘Any proposals will be controversial’
GIPSY sites will be controversial no matter where they go, according to a body that sets out to speak for Gipsies and travellers.
Joseph Jones, spokesman for the Gipsy Council, said Newport had not contacted the group: “Most local authorities seldom engage with the Gipsy traveller community.”
He said Newport council needed a decision-making process that would generate a positive outcome.
“They have to plan to come out with a successful consultation, not a plan to fail,” he said.
“The consultation needs to be structured in such a way that it is successful, not in such a way that no outcome comes out of it.
“Lets not pretend that Gipsy sites are anything other than controversial.
They are always controversial, no matter where they are.”
“There are lots of negative worries and stereotypical problems that people associate with Gipsy sites.
Whenever an application goes in, those stereotypes immediately raise their head.”
He said many worry that the value of their home near a Gipsy site may fall, but he said some of the highest priced housing can be found near Gipsy sites, such as Iver, near Windsor.
Mr Jones said there needed to be a mixture of permanent and transient sites: the latter may be used for people travelling for cultural purposes, travelling for work or seeing family.
“Preferably, sites need to be in sustainable locations,”
he said. “They need to have access to schools, doctors, proper health care, like any other community.”
However he said transient sites only work if there is a network of them – and there is a shortage of Gipsy sites across the UK: “If one council has a transient site but the next three to four don’t, then it doesn’t work.”