By Sean Benstead
On July 16th, reports began circulating on social media that a group of travellers had set up an unauthorised transit pitch on Hough End Fields. By the 27th, Section 77 notices had been issued and plans for eviction by police-supported bailiffs were underway. This article aims to address local resident hostilities to the travellers’ presence on the fields and argue that both communities have common cause when it comes to fighting for greater democratic oversight over land use. For traveller communities, there is an urgent need for acts of solidarity while local residents gain nothing from facilitating their eviction.
Unfortunately, yet predictably, instead of cross-community solidarity the travellers were met with hostility from local resident-led campaigns. On social media, some members of the ‘Save Hough End Fields’ community campaign noted that some travellers had come and cut through wooden anti-vehicle bollards to drive their trailers onto the public fields. From then, many contested rumours of repeated incidents of anti-social behaviour began to spread like wildfire. Some of those incidents were later discounted by a local police inspector, noting “no mention of any issues occurring” and that “the traveller site was quiet”. All regularly planned events, such as outdoor yoga, football and a local community mosque event commenced as planned with travellers in attendance. The police report confirmed that events went ahead without incident.
In Manchester Evening News, local residents reported that the travellers had “cut down several trees, left rubbish and constantly rode motorcycles and quad bikes in the area which has messed up the grass”. On social media, there were complaints of outside toilet use alongside claims that the travellers were using a local resident’s bins. However, instead of this being understood as denoting a need for access to waste management services, it was interpreted by many as provocation and insolence. Furthermore, no comment was made of the anti-vax, conspiracy-orientated ‘Soul Camp’ that was pitched nearby, and remains at the time of writing, who had been cutting down trees to fortify their occupied area.
On the 23rd of July, after numerous complaints from the local community and members of local campaign groups, GMP Officers and staff from the Manchester City Council (MCC) Neighbourhood Compliance team jointly carried out site visits. Reports from the Neighbourhood Compliance team, given by Rabnawaz Akbar as the Executive Member for Neighbourhoods at MCC via email, were that the team was “seen as the team who [were] there to evict them from Council owned land so engagement with [the compliance team] officers [was] minimal and, on many occasions, [could] be hostile”.
It remains unclear what kind of engagement, if any, really took place. According to someone from the traveller family who was there, the only contact with the authorities they had before the Section 77 notice was given was from police taking photographs of their registration numbers. What does remain clear is that the loudest voices in the local community were very much aligned with the move of our local authority to evict.
A “Public Space” fallacy?
In the aforementioned article, residents shared that they were “shocked that the travellers were allowed to stay and take advantage of this public space”. Here, the devil is in the details. Travellers have been firmly categorised as the Other and external to the rights afforded to the “public” to access this “public space”. Indeed, this “public space”, narrowly conceived, is the domain of an exclusive community.
At the time of the encampment, contact was made with an organiser for the campaign group, which describes itself as a “community action group to preserve public green space at Hough End”, to appeal for calm, an open dialogue and advocacy for council provision to meet the traveller’s needs as opposed to calls for police intervention and eviction. The response given was disappointing. The individual noted that “It's difficult [for them], living half a mile or so away, who supports travellers’ rights in theory, to disagree with the local residents”. Furthermore, they note that they are “proudly a pragmatist [...] as a pragmatist I have to consider that for the majority of the group having open space to walk on, to not have giant fences or polluted streams, to not have their grass replaced by plastic, nor to have it festooned with tyre marks is their priority”. They went on to note that the main quarrel with this particular group of travellers was that they had removed the wooden bollards which were placed on the fields’ entrance specifically to keep them out. The right to not be excluded through physical barriers like fences is, again, not universally applied to all people.
It transpired that these frustrations also related to historical experiences at Hough End Fields and that this public space has been used as a transit site by travellers for many years. Evidence suggests that the eviction-first response from MCC and GMP authorities in July, instead of deliberative and negotiated land access and service provision, has been the standard procedure over the last decade. This decade has also seen the planning and implementation of MCC’s socially destructive development regime that prioritises unaccountable global financial capital, private development and enclosure over public needs. As such, Manchester’s urban development is predicated on undemocratic land value appropriation to the detriment of universal use.
This firmly places the ‘Save Hough End Fields’ community action group, whose aim is to “preserve public green space”, in a place of natural solidarity with the traveller community. Both communities have been under attack through MCC-led enclosures that aim to facilitate rent extraction. For Hough End residents, this struggle was against the enclosure of their public space for pay-to-play football pitches. Meanwhile, traveller communities have seen public sites sold from under their feet for private development causing an exacerbating crisis of site provision. This solidarity must be realised under the demands for universal, democratic use of public land.
The Need for Solidarity
With an eye to the history of GRT (Gypsy, Roma and Traveller) land struggles and state harassment, alongside the legal provisions against trespass in the now imminently legislated PCSC Bill, it is clear that without cross-community solidarity the assaults on our GRT communities are only going to get worse and more frequent. A liberal pragmatism, understood as a political end in itself, can never confront the threats that GRT communities now face. We need deliberative, but determined, cross-community solidarity that recognises mutual need and a universalised conception of public rights of land access and use. And we need this now.
A recent report released by Travellers, Family and Friends, released January this year, revealed a shocking unmet need for pitches on a national level. The report reveals that whilst over 1696 households are currently on waiting lists for pitches, there are just 59 permanent and 42 transit pitches available nationwide. None of these are in the North of England. Meanwhile, large council sites such as the one at Dantzic Street in Collyhurst, itself in a dire state and highly vulnerable to flooding, have been sold off to private developers for redevelopment into luxury flats. The damning report also notes that the general state of existing sites elsewhere are dangerously overcrowded and have been described as “not fit to use” and “in a terrible state” by locals.
In 2020, there were around 3000 travelling families that likely have no legal or safe place to stop and found to be on unauthorised pitches with intermittent access to sanitation, water, healthcare and education services. This is likely to increase with the dispossession of the families from the Dantzic Street site without adequate provision of desperately needed transit and permanent sites in Manchester. The narrowing of the conception of “public space” to exclude the traveller community ultimately serves to facilitate local state-capital development regimes of mass dispossession. In contrast, cross-community solidarity means negotiated access to public spaces alongside local advocacy through our council representatives for service provision with actual input from, and deliberation with, travellers themselves. These acts and conversations can also serve as small-scale models of deliberative democracy in action.
In a final conversation with Rabnawaz Akbar, he noted that there were pledges made from the Neighbourhood Compliance team to reform the way that initial engagement with travellers takes place. He noted that “initial engagement should be seen in the same way that Neighbourhood Teams would lead on engagement with any other sections of the community [and] ensuring residents are linked into any services they may need”. Further discussions have been set to take place. This was an outcome of advocacy despite local resident hostilities. Can we imagine what can be achieved through solidarity and a united call for a deliberative and democratic oversight to MCC’s development regime?
Sean Benstead is a local campaigner on land, environment and GRT issues.
1 September 2021