Travellers on a site near Exeter are now officially squatting the land they've been living on for 13 years.
The New Traveller site on Haldon Hill, dubbed "Middle Tree" by the people who live there, has been tolerated by authorities since its foundation. However, all that's set to change: on Monday, the local council opened a £1.2 million site adjacent to the original camp, the idea being that all the travellers next door would move into its plush new pitches.
Only, the travellers next door aren't all that keen on this idea; they've spent over a decade building a community, and most – understandably – want to stay put. Problem is, this doesn't really fit within the council's plan, so following a visit from the police on Tuesday, those who've decided to stick around are now awaiting a court date (on the 16th of December) that will begin the eviction process.
The stand-off has brought attention to the site, and while relations with the locals are generally amicable, a new kind of bitterness has emerged.
"We're getting glass bottles and fireworks thrown at us," Annie* (real names have been withheld), one of the site's residents, told me. "People are beeping their horns all the way past in the middle of the night. The changes are segregating us all. We feel victimised. The local community have accepted us, we've been here so long."
In its heyday, this unauthorised site in the forest on Haldon Hill was home to around 100 people. If you've already got a mental image of a New Age traveller site, chances are it looks a bit like this: a cluster of trucks and buses; renovated horse-boxes; lots of dogs running around; music pumping from speakers; a low probability of seeing anyone in a suit.
While Haldon ticks all these boxes, what you may be less aware of are the internal workings of such a community. The emphasis on sharing and cooperation, the focus on living sustainably and the integration into the local community, alongside a fair bit of admirable self-sufficiency.
All of this, say the Haldon Hill travellers, has been disrupted thanks to the imposition of a new, regulated site on which their way of life will no longer be tolerated. Billed as the "first of its kind", the site offers 15 pitches, each of which comes with a private block containing a toilet, shower, kitchenette, space for a washing machine and a living area. Running water, power, bin stores and recycling facilities will also be provided. Residents of the new site will be required to pay rent, service charges, water rates and council tax. There will be an on-site "warden" and CCTV cameras have been installed.
Of the 30 to 40 people still living here, only ten are moving onto the new pitches. Sue*, who's been on site for five years, is one of them. Still, she says the £1.2 million hasn't necessarily made things better.
"Not everyone wants flushing toilets," she tells me, adding that the compost loos they use at the moment are more suited to the group's eco ethos. "We'll fight the eviction, but in the meantime I've got to move onto the new site because I have a little boy in school and it's a safer option. Even though it's minging."
The new council-built site near Middle Tree
Other complaints about the new site are that the concrete plots are too small to pitch more than one truck on, meaning families spread between more than one vehicle won't be able to live together. As a result, lots of the bigger families have already moved on.
While the new site is billed as sustainable, the residents say that their current homes – most of which use solar panels, wood-burners for heat, gas bottles for cooking and make only minimal use of generators during winter – have far lower impact on the environment.
Others are angry about the list of rules, which stipulate that dogs must be kept on leads, ban the use of open fires and no longer allow piles of scrap, which – although unsightly – are a means of income for many. When residents have guests, they'll be required to sign them in and note their vehicle registration.
"I had to read through and sign pages of rules and regulations," says Sue. "It's ridiculous; you don't have that on a council estate."
Cost is another issue, with many travellers saying they can't afford to live on the new site. Annie works at festivals during the summer and lives frugally during winter, just getting by. Paying rent and council tax would be impossible, she says.
"I'm lucky because I'm a single mum, so housing benefit will pay that for me," says Sue. "But people who are working will struggle."
Haldon's £1,115,000 grant from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) is part of a wider government scheme, the Traveller Pitch Funding programme, sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The aim is to create more legal sites for travellers, a move that has been hailed by some travellers charities.
"In 2011 to 2015, we have allocated £41,393,248 to provide 625 new traveller pitches, and a further £8,346,554 to improve 369 existing pitches," a spokesperson for the HCA told me. "The aim of the programme is to support councils in their statutory duty to provide homes for all sections of the community."
At present, there are around 500 authorised traveller sites in the UK. Not many, considering the UK's on-site and roadside traveller population is 100,000 (200,000 are estimated to be in housing). According to government figures, 25 percent of the traveller population in the UK is technically homeless (i.e., they have no authorised place to live). Clearly, change is needed.
Travellers are not one amorphous group, and what works for Gypsies, for instance, may be at odds with what works for Irish Travellers or New Travellers, like those on Haldon Hill. The aim is that authorised sites should fit with the cultural norms of the people they're created for. Often, this works, and Emma Nuttall of the charity Friends, Families and Travellers told me things are heading in the right direction.
Teignbridge Council and Teign Homes, the housing association that will manage the new Exeter site, say they've done their best and have held ongoing meetings with the Gypsy and Traveller Liaison Service, as well as residents of the old site.
"We needed to arrive at a compromise; something that would achieve the best outcome for everyone involved," says Councillor Philip Vogel, spokesperson for housing and planning in Teignbridge. "The site could not stay as it was – residents did not have access to suitable sanitation, the encampment was unauthorised and it was having a negative impact on the surrounding environment and the wider Haldon community."
Dale Farm (Photo by Joel Plaja)
The eviction battle at Dale Farm in Essex is still in recent memory, and huge stigma remains around travellers of all ilk. On Haldon Hill, bottles are being thrown because travellers don't want to move onto the new site. Meanwhile, the HCA replied to a Freedom of Information request saying it could not give out details of planned sites due to hostile reactions from locals who object to the sites being built in the first place.
"There have been previous reports of sites designated for traveller pitches being subjected to damage and arson," it said.
So travellers are damned if they do, damned if they don't. What people really want, it seems, is for them to grow the hell up, move into bricks and mortar, get a mortgage, clock up debt, burn some fossil fuels and, above all else, get a toilet that flushes. Tolerance is low for those who refuse.
Annie, like most of the other Haldon Hill travellers, is planning to move on. Maybe to another UK site, maybe to Spain. It's the end of an era for this community.
"The government is trying to make our way of life more and more difficult," she says. "It's not OK to just be flitting around over the country and to be free."