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The Conservative Party recently passed a law to prevent travelers from staying in unauthorized campsites. The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC Act) contains new measures that make it a criminal offense if you “reside on land without consent in or near a vehicle” and “likely to cause serious harm or disruption”, or if you are likely to cause “significant distress”.
In 2019, Lancashire County Council voted to sell the Leighton Traveler site to Preston, one of the licensed sites created for them in the late 1980s. In the event the new owner evicts the residents, the PCSC Act would make it more difficult for them to find accommodation.
Local activists who observed these developments lobbied Preston City Council to buy the site and run it as a co-operative. The campaign they started led to the city council buying the site in March 2022, allowing residents to stay and have more of a say in running the site.
John Gavin is resident and director of the Traveler site. He predicted that the county council’s decision to sell the site would leave the families living there homeless. Gavin and two of the activists who joined him spoke to The Canary.
Gavin described his and other residents’ initial efforts to reach out to local politicians:
The county councilors didn’t care. We have petitioned all councilors in Preston, Liberal, Conservative and Green. The only ones who responded to us were Mathew Brown (Head of Council at Preston City Council) and Labor Councillors.
He told the story of his first encounter with local activists shortly before the county council made its decision:
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About a week before, I was thinking about who we could contact now to get our message across, and I was there for about an hour thinking. Then my wife said someone had just knocked on the door.
Dave Crawshaw was one of the Preston Labor Party members on the doorstep who had heard of the case. Crawshaw told The Canary that the county council sold the site and the steps it took afterwards:
I was present at the Lancashire County Council cabinet meeting in September 2019 when the decision was made and was very shocked at the almost total lack of debate on the subject. The whole problem was settled and dusted off in about 5 minutes, and no one spoke against the proposal… Within a few weeks, we had Preston councilors adopt the site.
New ownership model
Crawshaw explained the cooperative model the Council would use after purchasing the site in March 2022:
It’s called Leighton St Travelers Ltd, so it’s a corporation, but its statutes are set up as a cooperative. So, for example, all residents have the right to be members of the co-op and one of the directors is elected from among the residents, so residents have a voice and a say they never had before … It would be more correct to say that Preston CC is our landlord although the nominal rent is £1 a year.
Residents pay the rent as they did before, but the difference is that instead of going to the council the rent goes to the co-op which is responsible for maintaining the site and buildings and paying all the bills utilities, insurance, council tax, etc. We will not get any council grants.
In addition to the maintenance financed in this way, the June City Council applied to the Department of Planning, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) Travellers’ Site Fund. The estimated cost of the whole project is £337,220.
Response from the county council
Lancashire County Council responded to some of the claims made in this article:
The decision has been taken to seek new owners for the Leighton Street site as the County Council has no legal responsibility to provide sites for travellers, but it was always our intention to include a clause in any sale or transfer that the site should be retained for use by the traveling community.
The response to the public consultation on the future of the site has made it clear that many residents would prefer the site to remain in public ownership and we are pleased to have reached an agreement with Preston City Council on its transfer which will ensure the use of the site for current and future residents.
Activists The Canary spoke predicted that the county council would sell the site to other travellers. But they also mentioned that those who expressed an interest would likely want to evict the current residents.
Meanwhile, John Gavin praised business, academia and unions for the role they have played in lobbying the city council:
They spoke to elected officials, they sent e-mails, phone calls, letters… Everyone said that elected Labor members contacted them again. But the liberal and conservative advisers did not recognize us.
Mick Darlington – an executive member of Unite who helped Gavin coordinate with the council – said:
In my opinion, Preston Council differs from the vast majority of other councils because they have a true socialist agenda, where the people they represent are always put before political or financial gain.
The local branch of Unite also paid for a computer for the inhabitants of the sites for the operation of the cooperative.
Contrast with approaches of other councils
In an increasingly anti-Traveller environment, Labor’s actions in local politics have not always followed Preston’s lead. Charlotte Nichols, Minister for Labor Equality, handed out leaflets for the April 2021 local elections promising to “dealing with the incursions of travelers”.
Labour-led councils like Southampton have also taken a confrontational approach. In May, a union adviser called the armed police to prevent travelers from camping on a site.
The approach taken by the Preston Labor Party, however, convinced John Gavin to support them:
I wouldn’t be interested in any party other than Labor and I haven’t voted for years… I have a completely different opinion now because of Preston Labour.
This campaign is notable because campaigners in Preston are observing the development of politics and are aware of the impacts on the community. The close relationship between labor members, unions and community organizations enabled the advisers to quickly implement a solution. This in turn has made Preston stand out in an environment where Travelers face prejudice from government, sections of the Labor Party and other local authorities.
Featured image via Preston Labor – YouTube
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