Councillor power to vote down Traveller accommodation should be suspended – FLAC

Votes against accommodation leading to over-crowding, poor conditions on sites

The Free Legal Advice Centres  service said there was a serious flaw in the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998. File Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

The Free Legal Advice Centres service said there was a serious flaw in the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998. File Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

 

Local councillors should not have the power to vote down Traveller-specific accommodation they have previously voted in favour of, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Councillors voting against this accommodation is leading to a lack of new Traveller-specific accommodation, over-crowding and poor conditions on existing sites, and an over-representation of Travellers among the homeless population, the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community has heard.

The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) service said there was a serious flaw in the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998.

“Councillors may adopt a programme for the provision of Traveller accommodation for a period of five years, which the local authority is legally bound to implement, yet [councillors] vote against the delivery of components of that programme with impunity,” said Christopher McCann, solicitor for FLAC’s Traveller Legal Service.

Mr McCann said that councillors’ reserved function of approving proposals for Traveller accommodation should be suspended through new legislation, as outlined in a government-commissioned 2019 expert group report.

Mr McCann added that Traveller accommodation should have an alternative and direct planning permission route through An Bord Pleanála.

Travellers are also being discriminated against with regards to evictions, according to Mr McCann. “A local authority wishing to evict a Traveller living on the roadside or an unofficial site has no fewer than five separate legislative mechanisms to do so.

“Each of these mechanisms carry with them a risk of prosecution, of the Traveller having their caravan (ie their home) towed and/or impounded and all but one may be invoked on short or no notice, without prior or subsequent recourse to a court or other independent authority.”

Disparity

In contrast, a local authority wishing to evict a squatter from a council house must apply to the District Court for a possession order.

Mr McCann said that this legislation should change to end this disparity.

He added that the civil legal aid scheme needs to be expanded to cover housing, evictions and appearances before quasi-judicial tribunals such as the Workplace Relations Commission, to ensure Traveller’s legal rights are realised.

Dr Rosaleen McDonagh, member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), spoke about her lived experience of Traveller accommodation.

“Where you have racism, you have poverty. Where you have poverty, you have disability and long-term ill health.”

She has lived through nine evictions in her family, and lived on four different “temporary” sites. “Within those sites, maintenance, water issues, toilet issues were a constant worry ... as well as the constant threat of closure and eviction from the site.”

Travellers with disabilities and those with long-term illnesses are living in very difficult circumstances as a result of inadequate accommodation, she added.

Dr McDonagh noted that she first started contributing to task forces in relation to Traveller accommodation in 1999, but Travellers’ living conditions have not changed since then.

She called on local councillors, politicians and settled people to make a new history to end racism against Travellers.

Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner of the IHREC, detailed harrowing cases of homelessness and overcrowding among the Travelling community.

“We have worked with a family, including a new born baby, sleeping in the family car for months, including over winter.

“Families, including members recovering from surgery for serious illnesses, living for long periods on so-called ‘temporary’ halting sites, wholly unsuitable for human habitation, and a family living in ‘settled’ accommodation in seriously overcrowded conditions, including one child with a significant disability and complex medical needs.”