(Overview of Meeting 24/10/19)

This blog post will provide an overview for those who missed the meeting, and a recap for those who attended.

The meeting included a presentation about the policy, followed by discussions about community-led research, the possibility of working with a variety of organisations, and other ideas on how to move forward.

Please comment if you feel anything needs further clarification, or if you have any contributions/comments or questions. Also, if anyone who was at the meeting and feel any important information is missed out here, please let us know.

For a long time vandwellers have been a part of the city’s culture. However, at the end of summer 2017, we started to see an eruption of media reports (reaching national coverage) expressing concern over the “dramatic rise” in vandwelling. This was largely felt to be a result of the housing crisis.

Regardless of whether or not the number did increase – and whether or not the housing crisis was the key factor for all vandwellers or not – the public outcry led to new policy being formulated…

In response to the outcry, Bristol City Council (BCC) launched a consultation during summer 2018 – the published results of which can be found here.

808 people responded, with just half being in Bristol, and the other half being beyond Bristol or those with no post code.

Most respondents were concentrated in Easton and Ashley – two districts where some vandwelling encampments had been a “problem” for local residents. (Greenbank Cemetery and Ashley Downs).

Most respondents provided info on their housing situation. About 92% of those who responded to this question were living in Bricks and Mortar. (It could be more if any of those living in “other” housing were also in Bricks and Mortar).

A summary of Bristol’s housing market in 2017 (about a year before the consultation) reveals that home owners were slightly over-represented in the survey, constituting about 53% of the housing market.

Renters were slightly under represented, making up 29% of the housing market at the time.

Those in council houses were significantly under-represented, constituting 18% of the housing market.

Vandwellers were arguably over-represented. While it is difficult to quantify a transient population – especially one that also often has to hide to avoid enforcement and discrimination – BCC estimated that about 200 vandwellers were residing in Bristol around this time (about 1% of the population).

However, considering that vandwellers are a minority and the policy impacts them the most, they arguably should have had more say.

This flow chart was presented to respondents as part of the consultation, and has made its way into the new policy that was put through this September (2019). It reveals a process of faster enforcement procedures, which follow a monitoring and assessment phase (see flow chart).

The policy can be triggered by reports from members of the public, or reports from patrol officers from the Neighbourhood Enforcement Team (NET).

Abandoned vehicles are to be given just 24 hours notice to move vehicles before being towed away, and 7 days to claim before being disposed of. This means that, potentially, if someone is away working (for example) they could come home from work to discover that their vehicle will be towed the next day if they do not find a way of towing it elsewhere themselves. Or even worse, they could return to Bristol after working away to find their home has disappeared.

While this is perhaps a worst case scenario, there is concern that caravans or vans could appear abandoned and be removed promptly which would have a very negative impact on the wellbeing of the affected vandweller. While vehicles that appear abandoned could cause negative impact on house dwellers in the area, this enforcement approach could arguably be supplemented with a more supportive, preventative approach.

Vehicles that are clearly “lived in” will be assessed as either “high impact” or “low impact” (the criteria for which will be explored next.) High impact encampments will be evicted within 3 weeks, a pretty speedy process.

So far, 7 court orders under the Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994 have been made via this policy (25/10/2019)

Low impact encampments will be “monitored” for “up to 3 months and beyond.” There is concern that if a report is made based on discrimination rather than any legitimate concerns about anti-social behaviour, vandwellers causing no harm would be put under surveillance.

It was mentioned by one vandweller in the meeting that this could cause significant problems for peoples mental health. It was also noted by another vandweller that to put people under surveillance (wrongly) implies some kind of criminal activity.

There is also mention of “liason” with St Mungos, a homeless charity. However, there is not so much info available about this. The council appear to have grouped together rough sleepers and vehicle dwellers as people “living on the streets.”

On the consultation page, St. Mungos are quoted:

“Recovery from homelessness can be a long, hard journey. It is rarely a quick fix. The increased visibility of people living on our streets is shocking and we will continue to go out and offer people somewhere safe to stay, an opportunity to rebuild their lives and long term support to sustain a life away from the streets.”

In the meeting, people raised concern that this would be a waste of the charity’s resources, as most vandwellers do not consider themselves to be homeless.

The way that this policy is actually carried out in practice will be largely down to those enforcing it. While enforcement could be carried out fairly, it seems that there is a lot of potential for it to be used unfairly.

This is why we want to ask those impacted by the policy to let us know how the policy is being implemented.

“High impact” encampments are assessed following the above critera. These criteria were made public via the consultation, and seemed to be favoured by the majority of respondents.

However, the housing situation of those that responded to these questions has not been made explicit. It would be interesting to see the responses from vandwellers compared to those in bricks and mortar (the latter making up 92% of respondents).

There were also some other questions asked. A small majority of the respondents overall wanted to see facilities provided for vandwellers, to prevent high impact encampments.

Respondents in bricks and mortar were pretty divided, but almost everyone living in vehicles (those most impacted by the policy) wanted facilities.

Despite this, there has been no mention of providing facilities under the new policy. In addition to this, if we reconsider the arguments made in the petition that used existing research evidence, this is likely to trigger viscious circles.

There is concern that the policy offers only new enforcement opportunities, rather than ways of accomodating vandwellers and preventing the need for enforcement.

Respondents were also asked about the possibility of further parking restrictions. A small majority voted for this overall, most of which being home-owners.

There does not seem to be any mention of new parking restrictions being implemented yet.

However, injunctions – which will be explained further later – could be used to restrict vehicle dwellers specifically from being able to park in certain places.

The consultation provided a comment section.

Alarmingly, almost 1/3 of respondents displayed what could be considered discriminatory/intolerant sentiments.

More positively, a significant number of respondents called for site provision, rent caps and more affordable housing. However, the latter alone would not be an ideal solution for those who wish to preserve their chosen way of life in a vehicle.

Despite this, we are yet to see any rent caps, significant improvements in the construction of affordable housing, or site provision. Instead, it appears that only the intolerance of encampments has been accomodated.

In fact, site provision was dismissed on the basis of what appears to be a huge misunderstanding of the lifestyle (which comes across discriminatory). This was one of the main arguments made on the petition.

The reference to support being gained from “partner agencies” might shed light on how St Mungos will be involved. However, we wonder what “sustainable housing options” they have in mind considering the current housing situation in Bristol.

Fortunately, SARI – who supported the petition – have contacted the council to inform them that this has come across discriminatory.

5 days before the policy went to the cabinet, it was made public that a significant amendment had been made to the policy: the use of injunctions.

PSPOs are also mentioned on the policy as an existing available enforcement power. PSPOs can be made to ban a type of “antisocial behaviour” being carried out in certain locations. As it stands, these are currently not being used in Bristol against vandwellers. The NET have confirmed that they are not planning to use these at the moment. They have mostly been used to ban drinking in public in some parts of the city (see here).

Injunctions are bans made against individuals carrying out certain behaviours in certain locations. Beyond Bristol, they have also been used to ban “persons unknown” from parking up in entire localities too.

The NET have been using injunctions. Since 3rd September, they have made 2 and another one is in the process of being implemented now.

If anyone knows who these injunctions have been made against, please let us know so we can try and help them.

Both PSPOs and injunctions are considered a breach of human rights when unfairly implemented against vehicle dwelling communities.

PSPOs have been used in a discriminatory manner elsewhere in the UK. See here the impact this has had in Brighton, for example.

On a positive note, when capable lawyers have been hired to combat these injunctions, they have been successful. At the meeting we discussed the possibility of fundraising to combat these injunctions.

We recommend that anyone threatened with an injunction contact us immediately, or contact the Community Law Partnership directly, who are great at combatting injunctions. We have a lot more rights and support available than we have probably realised.

There is also a wave of campaigning against discriminatory injunctions happening at the moment. We discussed potentially uniting with other travelling communities to tackle these attacks on vehicle dwelling.

At the meeting, we received a great deal of support and were amazed by the creative and innovative solutions and ideas people brought along to contribute. Some of these ideas will not be made public just yet and need further discussion. However, overall…

  • A very strong majority were keen to fundraise and hire a lawyer to review the policy before the 3 month deadline expires. If anyone wants to get involved and help out, please let us know in the comment section.
  • It was proposed that we could look into the possibility of there being a “legal statement” of some kind that vandwellers could use to defend themselves if threatened with legal action
  • We also discussed fundraising to support individuals threatened with injunctions.
  • Most of us filled out responses to the councils recent GTAA (Gypsy Traveller Accomodation Assessments), which was opened up to all vehicle dwellers. These assessments are used to collect information on the wants and needs of these communities to inform housing policies. Several attendees also took away forms to be filled in by others who could not attend. If you wish to participate, please contact michael.bayliss@ors.org.uk or join this facebook group (Get on it quick…there’s not much time left.)
  • Most people were keen to set up a social enterprise – or some other kind of formal organisation. However, the form this will take is still undergoing consideration and will be discussed further in future meetings.
  • A strong majority expressed interest in carrying out our own community-led research, rather than just relying on the council-funded surveys.
  • Overall, people were keen to have some kind of open communication with the council and felt it would be beneficial. For those who don’t wish to communicate directly with them, we can provide a bridge to facilitate contact on their behalf.

We discussed the possibilites of working with the press. Some people showed interest in talking with a couple of trustworthy journalists. Some of us had some great ideas about using other forms of media to get voices heard, for example:

  • making a film about vehicle dwelling
  • musicians in the community proposed making tunes and music videos
  • an “open homes” vandwelling special to show the world just how homely vehicle dwelling can be.

We considered working with existing organisations, so far this included:

After the discussions we shared contacts and agreed to arrange another meeting. Keep your eyes peeled for more info on future meetings and events…

If you wanna get involved, get in touch via the comments section 🙂

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