The city of Durham is on traditional routes to Appleby Horse Fair, when 10,000 Travellers from all over Europe descend on the small town in neighbouring Cumbria. Now it is the first city to offer sanctuary on church land to this community, in a move designed to counter legislation that will give police new powers to move on encampments.
Durham’s diocesan synod, which has agreed unanimously to the move, hopes the scheme will be rolled out nationwide.
Durham’s chaplain to the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Rev Nicky Chater, said: “We will be asking churches to look favourably on allowing Travellers to park on suitable land like meadows and car parks, which have access from the road, and to talk to local authorities about providing facilities, perhaps toilets and rubbish collection.
“There is a long tradition of Travellers finding sanctuary on church land and we want to revive that shared history.”
This year’s Appleby Horse Fair is 9-12 June, delayed a week to avoid clashing with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
The journey to and from the fair is part of the spiritual experience for the Travellers, who rely on stopping-off points to rest their animals.
But the Synod’s vote comes too late to help this year. Chater said there was a legal obligation on local authorities to provide spaces for Travellers, but at the latest count there were just 354 official transit pitches in England and Wales, with the 2011 census showing a Traveller population of 53,000.
“Obviously there is a huge gap between provision and need,” said Chater. She said pressures on Travellers were about to worsen with the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill nearing its enactment in law.
“Part 4 is about making stopping over on land you don’t own a criminal offence with fines up to £2,500, confiscation of caravans and property and even prison sentences,” she said. “All communities have people who break laws, or fail to consider the needs of others, but we don’t categorise a whole population by the acts of a few, except when it comes to Gypsies.
“We hope this pilot spreads across the country because it can help to relieve the pressure and lessen the fear for a community.”
The House of Lords public services committee has urged the government to include the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in its levelling-up programme. The plea came after the committee heard evidence that life expectancy for Gypsy and Traveller people is reported to be 10-25 years less than for the general population.
Baroness Armstrong, chair of the committee, said that since 2015 local planning authorities have been responsible for providing appropriate sites for Gypsies and Travellers. But in 2020 only eight out of 68 local authorities had identified a five-year supply of specific deliverable areas.”