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A Magazine for Sheffield

Why are Labour and the Lib Dems battling to block new homes for this Sheffield community?

Party activists claim they have legitimate concerns – but are they turning a blind eye to prejudice for the sake of electoral gain?


The homes are proposed for a site near Beighton, in south-east Sheffield.

Ian S on Wikimedia Commons.

Members of the local Liberal Democrat and Labour parties appear to be ramping up a campaign to block the allocation of new homes for Sheffield's Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities in the south-east of the city.

As reported by my Now Then colleague Philippa Willitts in February, the proposals form part of a new Local Plan for Sheffield, which is currently in draft stage and which will guide the development of the city over the next ten years.

The plan allocates space for just 15 new homes for GRT people on a council-owned site off Eckington Way, near Beighton. Despite some claims from local residents to the contrary, the site is not on green belt land.

In opposition to this single proposal, Liberal Democrats councillors tried to block the entire Local Plan at committee stage earlier this month and may vote against it when it comes before Full Council next month.

In response, some parts of the local Labour Party, who are the largest party on the council, have also ramped up their opposition to the new homes, with local MP Clive Betts leading his own campaign against the plan.

Now Then understands that Labour councillors are due to make a collective decision on how to vote on the Local Plan later today, and some councillors in the south-east of the city are reportedly pushing to join the Lib Dems in voting against the Local Plan. When we asked a Labour councillor in the south-east of the city whether they planned to vote against the Local Plan, they told us “no comment”.

'Shocking' discrimination

Gypsy, Roma and Travellers are one of the most discriminated against, frequently abused and publicly mistreated minority groups in the UK.

A special investigation by a Council of Europe (CoE) committee in May found that the levels of racist bullying faced by GRT pupils in schools is "particularly shocking, and requires urgent action from the authorities at all levels."

"The Advisory Committee has serious concerns about the situation facing Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the UK," notes the report, citing a "systematic shortage of sites resulting either from local authority unwillingness [or] opposition from local residents."

Gypsy, Roma and Travellers – a legally protected ethnic group – are one of the last groups of people it is acceptable to openly discriminate against in polite society.

Screenshot 2023 08 22 165101

The section of the draft Local Plan allocated to the site, marked as 'SES03'

Sheffield City Council.

Research by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2018 found that a staggering 44% of UK adults openly expressed negative feelings about GRT people based solely on their race – more than any other minority group by a large degree.

Coverage of GRT communities in the legacy media and the billionaire press often mirrors these openly negative attitudes, either for entertainment or to drive engagement under a click-based revenue model.

The CoE's investigation also found anti-GRT discrimination in areas such as employment, healthcare and the criminal justice system, concluding that there is "a troublingly persistent level of antigypsyism which pervades society at all levels."

Not enough sites

The CoE's finding that there is a "systematic shortage" of sites across the UK is mirrored in Sheffield. Extensive reports supporting the new Local Plan, drawn up by council planning officers, make clear the case for more GRT homes in the city.

An assessment from 2019 found a need for 44 new pitches or plots in Sheffield between 2019 to 2024, rising to 50 by 2034. 15 of these are proposed for the Beighton site, with others made up of extensions to existing sites and new small sites elsewhere.

The open hostility towards GRT communities is reflected in a summary of public comments about the plan collated by council officers. Four people – including one who seemingly put their real name to their comment – cited concerns around falling house prices if GRT people moved in nearby.

Other objections include inaccurate claims that the proposed Travellers site is on high-quality agricultural land – the officers’ report explains that only a small sliver of land on the site is classed as high-quality. The report goes on to robustly lay out both the moral case and the legal necessity for providing homes for one of the most disadvantaged groups in Sheffield.

"The Council has a statutory responsibility to provide for Gypsies and Travellers that travel for work. Gypsies and Travellers have the same right to have their housing needs met as anyone else," it notes sharply.

The council's Strategy and Resources Committee, chaired by Labour leader Tom Hunt, approved the draft Local Plan at a meeting in early August. All Green and Labour councillors, including Cllr Hunt, voted in favour of the plan, while the Lib Dems voted against. It will now go to a vote at Full Council where, if approved, it will be submitted to the government for examination.

If the plan is approved by the government it wouldn't immediately allow the council to start work on the Beighton site – they would first need to make an application to themselves for planning permission with a more detailed design.

Earlier at the same Strategy and Resources Committee meeting, councillors discussed a report produced by Sheffield’s Race Equality Commission and approved a response titled, ‘Becoming an anti-racist city’.

The only councillor on the Committee to draw out this link was local Green Party leader Douglas Johnson, who spoke about the need to “get on with” being an anti-racist city.

“Gypsies do, and have for centuries, suffered persecution, and there is a reason that we have a legal requirement to provide safe sites for Gypsies and Travellers,” said Cllr Johnson, agreeing with officer recommendations that the site should go ahead.

"Living locally myself"

Beighton is represented by three Lib Dem councillors, and all three that were in post before the most recent local elections objected to the housing plan in January.

"Living locally myself, I know first-hand this will cause problems with traffic," wrote Cllr Kurtis Crossland in January. "Traveller and travelling showpeople sites have worked well in other places, but I don't believe they would work in Beighton."

Council officers point out that 15 new homes are unlikely to have more than a negligible effect on traffic in the area. In their report, they state that “the relevant roads and junctions are not being flagged up as a major issue because the rate of change caused by the proposed developments is not significant.”

Traveller site

A traveller site in the UK.

Friends, Families & Travellers.

“The modelling work does show that there are existing issues on the network in this area with respect to certain junctions operating 'over capacity' and, whilst it is not the role of the Local Plan to resolve existing problems, these matters do need to be reviewed and solutions put forward,” the report continues. “As such, there is a commitment to review these matters as part of the updated Transport Strategy for the city, which is expected to be produced by mid-2024.”

The Transport Strategy referred to is likely to be published before any full planning application for the traveller site is lodged by the council.

Now Then asked Cllr Crossland why he believed a traveller site would not “work” in Beighton. He did not respond to our request for comment.

Around the same time of the Lib Dems’ January statement, Labour campaigner Michael Chilton, who works for the local MP Clive Betts and who ran unsuccessfully to become a councillor for Beighton in May, set up a petition against the plan that went on to be signed by 2,823 people.

Chilton's petition states that the proposed site was "not on the city boundaries" like two existing nearby Traveller sites, and that "placing it in the middle of a settled community" (i.e. non-nomadic) would be unsuitable.

At no point does the petition text propose an alternative site, mention the identified shortage of sites for GRT people in the city, or discuss the extensive hostility directed towards the GRT community in the UK.

Betts himself has now taken up the battle against the proposals, telling The Star that if they're approved at Full Council he will "continue the fight" with the planning inspectorate, who will examine the proposed Local Plan on behalf of the government.

Now Then put a number of questions to Chilton, including asking whether he agreed with the 2019 assessment that the city needed to allocate more homes for the GRT community. He declined to answer on the basis that he is not a local councillor.

It’s not all about Nimbyism”

There is evidence that the rival campaigns against the plan from two of Sheffield's supposedly progressive parties are hardening attitudes towards the GRT community in the city, as well as breathing new life into old myths.

Members of the Save Springwell Field campaign have now set up a website stating that it’s “not all about Nimbyism”. Nowhere on the site are the terms ‘traveller’ or ‘traveller site’ used, with campaigners instead only making non-specific references to the “development” of the site.

While the campaign makes no reference to the actual nature of the proposed development, and instead focuses on what they see as legitimate concerns around traffic, air quality and biodiversity, comments made in other forums are laced with anti-GRT sentiment.

"They pay NO tax or rates so it’s all on the hard working locals as the Labour Council put up rates again to pay for them," wrote one commentator on the Star's Facebook page, falsely – GRT people living on authorised sites, like the one in Beighton, pay council tax.

"So crazy that people who don't pay taxes can have land that contributes and will have effect on our community," said another person in the Beighton Community Forum group on Facebook, again, falsely.

Others were more unpleasant. “If it goes ahead that means loads of breaking and cars and vans will be going walkes,” wrote one Facebook commenter, while another simply put: “Another shit hole to look a mess.”

Although local Lib Dem and Labour activists have focused on what they see as legitimate concerns about the site, and have not expressed any anti-GRT views themselves, they do not appear to have done anything to counter these comments online.

Anti-racist city

In one post in the Beighton Community Forum dated 18 January, Labour’s Michael Chilton responded to comments about the two petitions that he’d set up, but did not choose to counter anti-GRT stereotypes and tropes that repeatedly occurred elsewhere in the comments.

We also spoke to the Save Springwell Fields campaign about these comments. They said they agreed that the council need to "crack on" with fulfilling their legal obligation to support the GRT community with new pitches. "We have made it clear we expect the council to do this with appropriate developments in the right places."

They went on to stress that their campaign centred on legitimate concerns about traffic, air pollution and biodiversity, and said they were "opposed to any development of the Eckington Way site" regardless of eventual use.

"I was really worried at the start of this campaign that there would be negativity towards the GRT community," said a spokesperson. "While I've seen a few unacceptable comments on Facebook forums I've been really relieved to have seen the wider community not doing so and in fact being very constructive as a whole."

"We have always been very clear about the council needing to identify appropriate sites for the GRT community."

But the responsibilities of a single-issue campaign are evidently different to those of political parties. The Lib Dems' policy is to "combat all forms of prejudice and discrimination", while the local Labour Party say they want a fairer Sheffield "for everyone and every community". Both parties have backed calls for Sheffield to become an "anti-racist city".

The resulting sense is that for Labour and the Lib Dems, while they might not agree with or endorse comments that frequently move into open prejudice, it’s also not in their electoral interests to challenge them.

After being agreed by the Strategy and Resources Committee, the Local Plan is now scheduled to go before Full Council for a debate and vote on 6 September.

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