Traveller accommodation crisis
Every local authority has to plan its Traveller housing for the next five years. But the programmes’ recent history suggests that few of the proposals will be implemented
Asking for change: Geraldine McDonnell with her granddaughter Kelly. Photograph: Alan Betson
In 1999, a year after the passage of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act, which required every local authority to address the accommodation needs of its “indigenous” Travellers, 1,203 Traveller families were living by the sides of roads, without running water, electricity, toilets or refuse collection. It was a crisis that the 1998 Act had promised to solve for a relatively small number of citizens.
Today, according to the Department of the Environment, just 330 families live on such “unauthorised sites”. It looks like a success, but it’s not the full picture. The numbers at the right of this article show how many Travellers the department says live in other types of accommodation. Among these there are 952 families in overcrowded, inadequate or other “crisis” accommodation, according to Colette Spears of the Irish Traveller Movement. Add the 330 by the sides of roads and that’s 1,282 inappropriately housed Traveller families, she says.
“There is a crisis like never before, and it is getting worse, because Travellers are giving up hope that local authorities are ever going to provide Traveller accommodation. And they are losing hope that anyone in central Government cares.”
She adds that the large numbers now in standard rented accommodation are not all there by choice, as local authorities would claim. A significant number had given up on getting Traveller-specific accommodation and, particularly if they had young children, felt they had no other option if they wanted to escape the squalor of unofficial sites.
On Monday, Travellers from across the State will converge outside Fingal County Council’s offices in Blanchardstown, in northwest Dublin, to protest at what they describe as the “total failure of the Traveller accommodation strategy”. They will highlight what they say is the typical case of the McDonnell family (below), on Dunsink Lane, near a former dump in Finglas, who remain in appalling conditions a decade and a half after first seeking Traveller-specific accommodation.
Every local authority is, at the moment, fulfilling its obligation to draw up a new traveller-accommodation programme. Draft 2014-18 plans have been put out for public consultation, and all must be formally adopted by the councils by April 30th.
But some of those drafts indicate little progress. Dublin City Council, for example, said in its 2009-13 programme that it would build 118 new units of Traveller-specific accommodation. It built one. Fingal County Council in its 2009-13 programme said that it would provide between 79 and 91 new units. It provided 30.
There was local concern this week that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s draft programme earmarks a picturesque site on Mount Anville Road for Traveller housing. Fearful residents may be reassured to know that the site was also earmarked in the last programme for a group-housing scheme, and in the one before that.
Local authorities, explaining the lack of progress, cite the downturn. Some, including Dublin City Council, say: “Regrettably, some schemes did not advance because of on-site antisocial behaviour and criminality.” Some have said that residents’ opposition has prevented plans.
Chris Flood, the former Fianna Fáil minister of state who chaired the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee from 2002 to 2005, and who remains an advocate of Traveller rights, rejects such explanations.
“Cost clearly has not been an issue,” he says. “Over €30 million has been made available in some of the years of current programmes. On a number of years the money made available by the department was not even being drawn down.”
Of the €170 million available to councils between 2007 and 2012 for Traveller accommodation, just €119 million was drawn down.
“If you look at the programmes that are drawn up,” says Flood, “they tend to be well done. They even specify sites and schemes. But when it comes to delivery the political will just isn’t there.”
Flood rejects local opposition as a valid defence for the failure to provide accommodation. “If objections are raised it cannot mean you don’t proceed. Travellers have a human right to housing. You can’t just not do it. The experience is that where Traveller accommodation is provided, even in the face of strong opposition, if it is well managed and well serviced by the local authority, relations between the communities will be positive.”
Councillor Brid Smith of People Before Profit chairs Dublin City Council’s Traveller accommodation committee. “The excuse that antisocial behaviour by some Travellers means a whole community doesn’t get accommodation is not acceptable. Imagine if they tried to say that antisocial behaviour meant any of the regeneration programmes had to be cancelled. There’d be war.”
Why have councils been so slow to deliver – or not to deliver – Traveller accommodation? Smith says most local authorities would like all Travellers to move into standard housing. “I think to most officials Travellers are a nuisance. They would like them absorbed and to go away as an issue. So if they can thwart their aspirations, and just get them all into flats and houses, that would be the end of the matter.
“Of course there’s the political reality that advocating for Travellers is not going to win you any votes. But it’s a human-rights issue, and while councils refuse to face that, Traveller families and Traveller children are growing up in Third World conditions we should all be ashamed of.”
As the national Traveller accommodation budget is to be cut further next year, to an almost meaningless €3 million, Traveller groups believe local authorities may not even try to implement their proposals. Most draft programmes make no mention of costs, and almost all contain a proviso similar to that in Dublin City Council’s: delivery “is based on the premise that there will be available funding”.
The Irish Traveller Movement wants the matter taken out of the hands of local councils. “We want an independent Traveller accommodation agency established with the power to compulsorily purchase land if necessary,” says Colette Spears.
Failing that, they want Minister of State for Housing Jan O’Sullivan to exercise her power under the Housing Act of 1966 to order local authorities to perform their housing functions if the Minister believes they have failed in those duties.
O’Sullivan has expressed her concern about the delivery of Traveller accommodation and ordered, for the first time, that there be midterm reviews of all the 2014-18 programmes. “This will ensure that any slippage in achieving goals is addressed over the lifetime of each Traveller accommodation plan,” says a department spokesman.
On every human indicator Travellers’ lives are blighted far beyond those of their settled neighbours: in unemployment, poverty, life expectancy, child mortality, literacy, numeracy, depression, addiction, homelessness and suicide.
“Nothing meaningful can be done to address these until Travellers’ housing needs are met first,” says Chris Flood. “It’s as simple as that. This is a small number of families. It cannot be beyond our capacity as a State to meet their very modest housing needs.”