Adrian Butler looks at the growing political row over legal and illegal caravans
A COMMUNITY of travellers yesterday moved on to a site in Liverpool paid for by almost £1m of taxpayers' money,, as the political row over the issue reached its height.
The refurbished Tara Park camp site in Oil Street, Kirkdale, which is an authorised site, contains kitchen and bathroom units, a central office, full disabled access and mains gas and electricity supplies.
Four caravans, owned by families of Irish travellers, were towed on to the site throughout the day after about 18 months of work paid for by Liverpool council and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Many more are expected to follow.
The move came as Labour and Conservative leaders continued to clash over the subject, which is topping the political agenda.
Yesterday, as the travelling community moved into Oil Street, figures released by the ODPM showed the number of travellers' caravans, both legal and illegal, in the region.
They showed there were 71 caravans on unauthorised sites, 113 authorised on council sites and 69 authorised on private land.
The figures, compiled in July 2004, reveal Liverpool and Knowsley councils have the biggest problem with 29 unauthorised caravans each.
Last night, Conservative leader Michael Howard announced a seven-point plan for tackling travellers.
It included measures to make trespass by travellers a criminal offence. Critics of Mr Howard claim he is trying to demonise all travellers for political gain.
The row began two weeks ago, when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said travellers and gipsies should be treated with the same cultural sensitivity by local authorities as other ethnic groups when they made planning applications.
The Government wants to promote legal sites, but Conservatives believe this is tantamount to favouring the rights of travellers and gipsies above other citizens.
Yesterday at midday, a lowloader brought the first large caravan into Oil Street. It belonged to Patrick and Bridget Driscoll who travel with their children and grandchildren.
Merseyside Police had set up a road block and six officers were overseeing the move with security guards.
Like all other travellers on the site, the Driscolls will pay £83.40 rent a week for their site.
They will also pay £854 council tax this year, as their caravan comes under Band A.
Mrs Driscoll, who has lived on the site since 1974, said: "We're going to be holding a special mass in the week to bless the site."
Another traveller, who was also moving in but declined to be named, said: "We're going to have a party tonight."
The group of three extended families has been living at the Eldonian Garden Centre site off Vauxhall Road for the last year.
They were supposed to move into the refurbished legal site in September, but building work suffered a number of setbacks.
The Oil Street site's refurbishment has been funded by a £691,808 grant from the ODPM, with Liverpool City Council paying a further 25%.
It has been planned since 2002, and has been masterminded by Dawn Taylor, Liverpool's service manager for gipsies and travellers.
She said: "When I started, there were no guidelines for running a site. I took the measuring stick as what you would do on a council estate.
"I wanted them to have their own water and electricity. It is the first site with total disabled access. We have quite a lot of elderly people in the site.
"The portable units were built in Belfast and imported over."
Ms Taylor said: "The drainage systems here were awful because there had been no money put into the site since 1994.
"The last amenity blocks did not even have heating.
"Moving in this week means that the children would be able to move in before the Catholic schools break up on Wednesday. They go to schools in Kirkdale."
On April 9, National Roma Day, an official opening ceremony will be held. The community is concerned it is being unfairly compared to those living in a large unlawful site in nearby Great Howard Street.
Peter Scour, a traveller living at the illegal site, said yesterday: "We're not going until the council get rid of us. We've got nowhere else to go.
"We want the council to build another transit site. We've moved here from other sites in the area."
Meanwhile, Mr Howard said he was ready to take tough action to end the abuse of planning law by a small minority of travellers, including repealing the Human Rights Act if necessary.
His proposals were greeted with scorn by Labour, whose election co-ordinator, Alan Milburn, accused the Conservative leader of "riding shotgun on the latest bandwagon to roll into town".
One backbench Labour MP, Kevin McNamara, even claimed his comments had "the whiff of the gas chambers" about them..
But Mr Howard, himself the son of Jewish immigrants, insisted his plans were not racist.
He told a news conference: "People claim it's racist to raise this issue. It is not. It has nothing to do with race.
"It's about standing up for the right values. It's about common sense. And it's about making sure that people abide by the law."
The row comes amid a furore about cases in which travellers and gipsies have moved on to sites, illegally installed facilities such as hard standing, electricity and water, then applied for retrospective permission.
Shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve said lax regulations in the UK had led to an influx of travellers from Ireland, which recently introduced tougher laws against trespass. travellers' websites gave advice on how to get round the planning system, he said.
The Tories' seven-point plan for tackling the problem includes:
* Reviewing or repealing the Human Rights Act to prevent evictions being blocked on the grounds they breach travellers' rights to family life;
* Allowing councils to refuse applications for retrospective planning permission where the law has knowingly been broken;
* Making intentional trespass a criminal offence;
* Extending councils' powers of compulsory purchase to protect local residents from being forced to buy land in order to avoid the threat of an illegal encampment;
* New enforcement powers to allow the rapid removal of caravans from illegal sites;
* Better guidance for police and councils; and
* Giving local people a greater say on the location of sites.
Mr Howard said travellers wanting to live on caravan sites should apply for planning permission the same way as anyone else.
"I don't believe in special rules for special interest groups," he said.
"I believe different people from different communities should be free to lead their lives in different ways.
"But freedom comes with a responsibility - the responsibility to do the right thing by your community.
"Many travellers accept this, living happily in neighbourhoods across our country. Sadly, a small minority of travellers do not.
"They are openly abusing our planning system."
On Sunday, Labour's planning minister Keith Hill accused the Tories of "tapping into the biggest vein of bigotry - prejudice against gipsies and travellers".
Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer dismissed the idea of a criminal offence of trespass as "a madcap idea".
Making a home from home
THE fully-refurbished Tara Park now has disabled showers, fully-heated rooms and wheelchair ramps.
There are fittings for tumble driers, and taps in the kitchen are adapted to be used by people with arthritis.
The Travellers have ordered white goods for their kitchens which they paid for themselves.