Local authorities failed to spend Traveller budgets, landmark inquiry finds

Investigation finds dearth of transparency in how councils decide on Traveller housing

A Traveller site off Belcamp Lane in Dublin7:  Dublin City Council has not sought to build a halting site since 2013. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

A Traveller site off Belcamp Lane in Dublin7: Dublin City Council has not sought to build a halting site since 2013. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Repeated failures by local authorities to spend Traveller accommodation budgets, to accurately count how many Travellers live in their areas and to recognise their ethnicity, are identified in a landmark investigation into local authorities’ compliance with human rights obligations.

In the first council-by-council interrogation of its kind, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) finds a dearth of transparency in how councils are spending their Traveller accommodation budgets, or clarity in their decision-making processes around Traveller housing.

It is a “concern” says the commission, that Dublin City Council, which has more than 200 Traveller families in homeless accommodation or unofficial sites, has not sought to build a halting site since 2013.

Galway City Council, where about 250 Traveller families need housing, dropped plans for three new halting sites between 2015 and 2018. The reasons for this “varied” at different points.

In total, 31 “equality reviews”, one on each local authority, are published on Wednesday. Between 2008 and 2018, of €168.8 million allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation, just two-thirds (€110.6 million) was drawn down.

Some local authorities – notably Donegal, Tipperary and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Councils – appear better in attempting to meet Travellers’ housing needs. Others, however, notably Clare and Mayo County Councils, and Galway City Council are less engaged.

Systemic problems

Even among the better authorities, however, there are systemic problems. None asks the ethnicity of social housing applicants and none tracks Travellers’ experience of the private rented market or responds to the particular discrimination they face.

In Fingal County Council, where Travellers make up 0.5 per cent of the population, they account for 4 per cent of homeless households. “There is little analysis of the reasons for this growth [in Traveller homelessness], the particular experience of homelessness of Travellers, or the implications of Traveller culture and identity for an effective response.”

Most local authorities impose a “restrictive” requirement that only “indigenous” Travellers will be considered for housing. This is a “concern” says IHREC, particularly as it appears to contravene a 2002 High Court judgment that such policies “must not be applied so rigidly that it becomes an effective bar to… an application for housing by a member of the Traveller community”.

Councils show little appreciation of Traveller culture in housing. Cork City Council is unusual, acknowledging “the importance of horse ownership within the Traveller community” while Tipperary County Council says it will “where possible… support the work of Tipperary Horse Owners Association”.

There is “little evidence” of acceptance of nomadism with most councils saying there is no need for transient sites in their areas, while 22 local authorities “make no reference to the caravan loan scheme, which facilitates the purchase of caravans for those Travellers who wish to live on halting sites”.

Recommendations

Most of IHREC’s recommendations to the 31 local authorities are repeated in each review.

These include that they gather accurate data on current and future Traveller housing need; track the experiences of Traveller households in homeless services and the private rented market; recognise the practical implications of Traveller ethnicity and ensure a respect for it in the provision of housing; and review the indigenous’ requirement for Travellers to access housing supports.

IHREC has asked councils to report to it by the end of August 2021, specifying the actions taken, or intended, within specific timeframes. “It will then consider what further action, if any, is necessary,” said a spokesman.