‘People don’t think of us as equal’ - Gypsies speak out about discrimination in Norfolk
- Credit: IAN BURT
It is a way of life that has existed in Norfolk for hundreds of years. But many Travellers and Gypsies still feel as though they are not welcome here. Luke Powell reports.
Rebecca Gallagher is like any other hard-working mother.
She runs her own business in Wymondham, pays her taxes and looks after her children.
But unlike most people, the 38-year-old also has to deal with regular discrimination - and as a Gypsy, she is not alone.
The mother-of-three, who lives on a permanent traveller site near Norwich, says even in 2018, her community is subjected to overt racism.
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She claims slurs such as 'pikey' are tolerated by society.
Mrs Gallagher is today speaking out about the issue in the hope of challenging people's perceptions.
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'I hate how we are treated,' she said. 'There is good and bad in every walk of life.
'Not all Gypsies and Travellers are good, but not all are bad either.
Mrs Gallagher has lived on the Roundwell Park Travellers' site off Dereham Road in Costessey for the past 14 years.
She helps manage the site and runs her own sunbed salon in Wymondham.
But she says being a Gypsy means she - and others from her community - are treated differently to those in mainstream society.
'It feels as though people don't think of us as equal,' Mrs Gallagher said.
'There are pubs out there that say 'no gypsies or travellers'.
'And there is a shop in Attleborough where the security guard will follow the kids around.
'I have had to say to him before 'we are not going steal anything. Whatever we pick up, we are going to pay for'.'
Her views are echoed by 61-year-old Janie Codona, who lives at a traveller site at Marshland St James, near King's Lynn.
Despite being awarded an MBE and currently studying for a PhD, she says the stigma associated with being a Gypsy has followed her.
She said: 'I have only ever had two jobs where I have been able to openly say I am a Gypsy.
'And both of those have been for organisations supporting the Gypsy community.
'The other times I have had to hide it because I wonder if people will treat me differently.'
She claimed when one supervisor at a factory discovered she was a Gypsy, he told her: 'I hope you're not going to start nicking things.'
Mrs Codona said part of the problem is people's misconceptions about Gypsies and Travellers.
But she added: 'I think it will take a long time for attitudes to change.'
Both women believe a lack of provision is behind one of the most common complaints about the Gypsy and Traveller community.
While there are just five official traveller sites run by Norfolk County Council, there are a further 100 authorised sites elsewhere in the county.
However, these vary drastically in size.
Mrs Gallagher says by creating more - or extending existing sites - it will reduce the number of unauthorised encampments.
'The simple solution is to think long-term and what can be done about this issue,' Mrs Gallagher said.
'If I was on the council, I would be thinking that every year these same people come into the area and we have to spend all this money to move them on.
'So why not use that money to build bigger sites, or extend existing sites?'
It is an opinion that has been shared by some town and parish councillors around Norwich in recent months.
The latest government figures show there were 618 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller caravans in Norfolk and Waveney in January this year.
Of those, 42 caravans were on unauthorised sites.
In Norwich, the number of caravans increased by 61pc from January 2015 to January 2018.
'It is not going to stop because they come here annually to see their families, or for births or weddings,' Mrs Gallagher said.
'And if you don't have these sites, they will pull up on these places because there is nowhere else to go.'
Tim East, who represents Costessey on Norfolk County Council, said it can cost councils up to £800 to evict travellers by going through the courts.
He said: 'The answer is to resurrect the idea of local authorities having to provide licensed sites,' he said.
'The solution is to use some of the disused airfields,' Mr East added. 'But [local] authorities say we can't do that because they are too far away from local services.'
Traveller pitches refused permission
Individual attempts to establish traveller pitches in the county have had mixed success.
Last year, Jason Smith sought permission to create a pitch for one static caravan and a tourer on land at Honingham Road, Weston Longville.
But sixteen people and the parish council wrote to Broadland District Council objecting to the plans.
Despite planning officers recommending approval, Broadland's planning committee refused it, claiming the site not within 'reasonable proximity of community facilities'.
Mrs Gallagher said she experienced similar problems to Mr Smith when she tried to create a pitch on the same land several years ago.
'I still have letters saying they [people in the village] want to keep the village in the same manner', she said.
'They are implying if you have Travellers or Gypsies in the area, they will ruin it.'
Mrs Codona said her site in West Norfolk was also initially met with hostility from the local community.
Extra sites for travellers
Fifty-one traveller pitches need to be found in the Greater Norwich Area by 2021, according to the 2012 Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment.
Norwich City Council has already started chipping away at that figure, having approved 13 pitches at Swanton Road in January.
The new pitches will form an extension to the existing traveller site, which neighbours the Mile Cross Recycling Centre.
The Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment said the overall figure of 51 should be seen as 'the minimum amount' needed.
'If the population of Gypsies and Travellers in Greater Norwich continues to grow at current rates then an extra 30 new pitches will be required every 5 years to meet the needs of newly forming households,' the report said.
Elsewhere in the county, Great Yarmouth Borough Council says its local plan core strategy makes provision for 10 additional pitches from 2013 to 2030.
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