Travellers' nomadic life eroded by state housing policies

The nomadic life of Travellers is being eroded by state housing policies in Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Commission warned.

They face the "unpalatable" choice of living in poor conditions to retain their traditions or moving into standard social housing at the expense of their way of living.

Some Travellers' sites provide inadequate services like electricity, water, heating, drainage, sanitation and waste disposal, the Commission said.

Chief commissioner Les Allamby said: "The Commission is concerned that legislation, policy and a lack of service provision amounts to an attitude of 'out of sight out of mind'."

The organisation found examples of washing units not fit for purpose in the Northern Ireland climate, fire and other health and safety issues that need to be remedied.

It noted: "The Commission has found an erosion of nomadic life through the policies and practices that have been developed and applied to Travellers and Travellers' accommodation.

"This needs to change."

The report was directed at key Northern Ireland government departments with responsibility for providing a decent standard of living for everyone in Northern Ireland.

It also made recommendations to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to improve management of Travellers' accommodation and local councils to prevent unnecessary delays in addressing planning applications.

The investigation identified 13 systemic issues.

It said inadequate sites was particularly common where they were intended as transient, but were operating as permanent in practice.

It reported that domestic laws and policies regarding Travellers' accommodation in Northern Ireland largely satisfied human rights requirements.

However, the Unauthorised Encampments (NI) Order 2005, which mandates police to remove trespassers from land, has had a "disproportionate" impact on the Traveller communities and threatens their nomadic culture, the report said.

There was evidence Travellers have been subject to discriminatory behaviour from public authorities and the settled community.

"This emerges through actions, but also through inaction and general inertia regarding Travellers' issues.

"Negative public opinions and bias towards Travellers also impacts negatively on Travellers, in particular concerning planning applications."

The report noted insufficient culturally adequate Travellers' accommodation available.

"In particular, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is failing to provide sufficient adequate Travellers' sites.

"Its actions and inaction suggest a preference for developing and maintaining bricks and mortar accommodation over Travellers' sites."

It said the Executive maintains it is satisfied with the resources available for developing and maintaining Traveller-specific accommodation, but the existing accommodation was insufficient to the need.

Spend per pitch has been reducing on an annual basis.

There was no robust mechanism for the Department for Communities to monitor how funding was allocated to Travellers' accommodation and what outcomes were achieved.

Efforts to ensure the participation of Travellers in decision-making processes regarding accommodation by public authorities were "ineffective and inadequate".

The Housing Executive said it was already implementing many of the recommendations.

"We agree that increased participation and consultation with the Irish Traveller community is needed and in terms of the accommodation requirements of the Irish Traveller community, we are completing a needs assessment and will consult with the Irish Travellers and the wider community on housing need/ preferences and land availability.

"Health and safety checks have already been undertaken by the Housing Executive in June 2017 on all sites and all necessary work is now complete.

"We have also recently appointed an adviser to carry out a condition survey of Housing Executive-owned Irish Traveller sites to determine works needed.

"The survey will take into account fire safety, health and safety issues, site guidelines and planning issues.

"This will help inform a programme of works to ensure that they meet Council requirements for the issue of site licences."

Research indicated Irish Traveller families wished to live in a wide range of accommodation options.

"We agree that more Traveller-specific accommodation options are required and we will be taking this forward with housing association partners and with local councils, through their community plans."

There are 143 units of specific accommodation.

The needs of nomadic families were provided through transit sites.

"A number of Irish Traveller families have also indicated a desire to live on 'serviced sites', which provide facilities for Travellers living in static mobile home type accommodation."

Eighty one units are situated in Belfast, Craigavon, Coalisland, Londonderry and Strabane.

The Executive added: "We have a range of Traveller specific housing schemes which includes 62 units of group housing in Derry-Londonderry, Belfast, Omagh, Toome and Bessbrook, Co Down."