The head of a traveller family in Preston says that plans to sell off the site where he has lived for more than 30 years will “open a can of worms” within the gypsy community.
Lancashire County Council’s cabinet will decide later this week whether to go ahead with a proposal to dispose of the land on Leighton Street, which currently houses around 60 people.
The secluded site, which sits in the shadow of the University of Central Lancashire, is one of three which County Hall intends to sell in order to save a combined total of more than £130,000 in annual running costs. If cabinet members agree to support the plan, a condition will be imposed on any buyer that the plots must be reserved for use by the travelling community.
But John Gavin says that the pledge offers no protection to the current residents who could be forced to make way for other travellers who might purchase the site.
“There are about 100 families for every traveller site in this country - so the council are automatically placing travellers in conflict with each other, because there are not enough pitches available,” he explains.
“Whoever takes over, they will eventually try to force us out by whatever means necessary - they'll put up the rents or start arguments over silly things, because their own people will have nowhere to go.
“We’d supposedly have to breach our licence to be kicked out, but a new owner would do it by underhand means.”
Papers to be presented to cabinet acknowledge that, following a sale, the authority would be “unable to offer further protection” to residents - although a court order would be required for evictions and rent increases would have to be determined by a tribunal, with a “presumption” that they would not exceed inflation.
But Mr. Gavin says that the peaceable community - which “doesn’t cause anybody any trouble” - could be provoked into a “Dale Farm-style protest”.
That is a reference to a long-running legal battle to evict travellers from a largely unlawful site in Essex, which ended in a sometimes violent confrontation with police during mass evictions in 2011.
“That was an illegal settlement - so imagine how much longer a legal site like ours could take to be resolved.
“The county council want this to be done by next April - I’ve told them it’ll be three or four Aprils down the road. It will cost them a fortune and take years.
“And if a new owner does come in and try to force us off, then our boys would come out.”
There is no suggestion that the county council would itself attempt to evict any of the current residents.
But Mr. Gavin has condemned the authority for not taking him up on several offers which he has made to take over the site himself - and for instead planning to sell it to “the highest bidder”.
He has spent the past three decades as the warden responsible for the day-to-day management of the plot and has been on-call around the clock on behalf of Preston City Council, which oversees the running of the site under an arrangement with Lancashire County Council.
“The county council told me that they are not trying to make a profit - so why not transfer it to me? That way, they save on the running costs, but also giving these families security.
“I don’t know where the expense is [being incurred] by Lancashire County Council anyway. Preston City Council do a great job, but they are given just enough to cover repairs and if anything extra is needed, they have to ask permission to get it done.
“This site will pay for itself - you won’t hit the jackpot by running it, but it will be sustainable.
“[Transferring to wardens] been done elsewhere in the country - and if they want references, I’ll put down Preston City Council, the police and local businesses. They are all happy with the way things are run now, because there is no trouble,” Mr. Gavin explains.
Ahead of the meeting on Thursday where a final decision is due to be made, the 59-year-old has written a personal letter to county council cabinet members.
“They have probably never met a traveller person in their life, they will only have seen what is in the papers and on the news. I’ve explained to them that the 15 families living here are good, peaceful, Christian people.
“Plus, I have my own brick-built bungalow on the site - it’s a permanent fixture and I have a mortgage on it. So who is going to compensate me for that if we are forced to leave?
“There has been no consideration for the fact we have been here for 32 years. I have four generations of my family here and my wife is in poor health.
“So would they like me to lock the door or leave it open for them, as we’re all walking off to live under a bridge?” Mr. Gavin asks.
COUNTY COUNCIL CARRIED OUT "A COMPREHENSIVE CONSULTATION"
Lancashire County Council is not obliged to provide traveller sites, but a legacy arrangement has seen it so far retain responsibility for the Leighton Street plot - and two others in Lancaster and Hyndburn.
A public consultation was carried out earlier this year ahead of a decision about whether to continue to operate the sites or sell them off. Cabinet members will be recommended to declare them surplus to requirements at a meeting on Thursday.
Papers to be presented to that meeting reveal that, if the sites were retained, savings would have to be made in the way they are run and rents potentially increased. But such a move could result in the pitches “becoming unaffordable [for travellers] or left in a poor/worse condition”.
Gary Pearse, Lancashire County Council’s head of estates, said: "The county council has undertaken a comprehensive consultation on these proposals.
"This has involved staff visiting sites on a number of occasions to advise individual residents on the proposal and consultation process, as well as making the questionnaire available in local libraries and the council's website.
"The results of the consultation will now be considered by members of the cabinet."
An equality analysis found that a decision to dispose of the sites could disrupt the education of young people from the Leighton Street community, who have an on-site education block and also attend local schools. It also noted that a disproportionate percentage of residents across all three sites have long-term health conditions or disabilities.
FINDING TRAVELLERS A HOME
In county council areas like Lancashire, it is district authorities which are obliged to assess the needs of the gypsy and traveller community and ensure that these are reflected in local development plans for their areas. However, they are not required to set specific targets for the number of pitches provided.
A report commissioned by Preston, Chorley and South Ribble councils earlier this year concluded that the region is likely to need an additional four pitches - groups of caravans, vehicles and an amenity block - by the mid 2030s. These are most likely to be required in the Preston area, the study noted.
There are currently two permanent traveller sites in Preston - the authorised Leighton Street plot and another, unauthorised, site on Rosemary Lane. The only other authorised site in Central Lancashire is a temporary pitch on Hut Lane in Chorley, which is due to be replaced with a permanent replacement on land at Cowling Farm in the early 2020s.