Councils Need Strategic Committee Just for Traveller Accommodation, say Experts

Local councils should set up new committees specifically to oversee Traveller housing issues, according to a government-commissioned report.

The “Traveller Accommodation Expert Review” report says the current structure of local government has slowed down the delivery of Traveller accommodation.

Each local authority should set up a strategic policy committee (SPC) on Traveller housing, separate from their existing committee on housing, it says.

Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan says Traveller housing issues haven’t always been given a fair platform at Dublin City Council’s Housing SPC.

She says of attendance in the chamber when Traveller accommodation comes up: “The officials would be there, obviously, to give the report, but the majority of the SPC attendees would have left.”

However, she’s not sure about creating a new SPC to oversee the issue.

Neither is independent Councillor Cieran Perry, who says that creating a new Traveller Housing SPC would put the issue into a separate little corner to be discussed, “rather than in the wider body of the Housing SPC and by default, the full council”.

Local authorities need to make some changes, though, according to the report. Under the current set-up, the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act of 1998 hasn’t helped to meet the “full-scale of accommodation needs” for Travellers.

“Twenty years later, the legislation hasn’t addressed the crisis of Traveller accommodation,” says Bernard Joyce, director of the Dublin-based Irish Traveller Movement.

“We’re looking at overcrowded, substandard accommodation across the country,” he says.

Local-Level Failings

Local authorities must implement rolling, five-year accommodation programmes for Travellers, under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act of 1998.

But the Traveller Accommodation Expert Review report says there is “a clear implementation gap between the number of accommodation units planned for and the numbers delivered.”

At a local level, councils were failing to meet their Traveller housing targets “in some cases for an extended period”, according to the report, which was commissioned by Fine Gael Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development Damien English.

The “expert group” who put it together first collected and considered submissions from various Travellers’ organisations and county councils.

“It was at the city, county and local level where the most issues in the planning system relating to Traveller accommodation were identified,” the report says.

This is due to opposition from residents’ associations, the failure of councillors to approve Traveller accommodation, and councillors not approving the acquisition or disposing of land needed for accommodation, the report says.

There are no requirements to include Traveller-specific accommodation in local area plans or strategic-development zone planning schemes – also a problem, the report says.

The report suggests an array of solutions: suspending councillors’, residents’ and businesses’ powers to approve or object to proposals for Traveller accommodation and scrapping the trespass laws used to evict Travellers.

It also recommended a grace period where there are no initial consequences for Travellers who park on the sides of roads.

No New Homes

There were no new homes built for Traveller families in the Dublin City Council area between 2014 and 2018, even though the council’s Traveller Accommodation Programme for that period had proposed a target of 41.

People Before Profit Councillor Hazel De Nortúin said this was “astonishing” at the June monthly council meeting, given the disproportionate number of Traveller families in emergency accommodation.

There were 104 Traveller families in emergency accommodation in the Dublin city area according to the annual Traveller count in November 2018, which is taken by local authorities.

Joyce says: “If you look at the figure of 104 families, Traveller families are large. They have an average of five children. If you calculated [104 families] by four [children], even, you’re looking at 104 by six. That’s over 600 people homeless.”

The 104 homeless families account for roughly 9 percent of all families in emergency accommodation, while Traveller children make up 11 percent of all children in emergency accommodation, according to the report.

Given that Travellers make up approximately 1 percent of the population nationally, it’s a “distinct disproportionality”, says the report.

Traveller households have an average of 5.3 people, compared with 4.1 per household for the general population, according to the Central Statistics Office. (It’s unclear how the figures count mixed households.)

(The accuracy of the annual count is itself criticised in the report, as this count is an estimate based on information from local authority social workers and “the exact methodologies used to conduct the count vary between local authorities”.)

Bernard Joyce.

New SPC?

Under the 1998 Act, local authorities have to have a local Traveller accommodation consultative committee to advise on the delivery and management of homes for Travellers.

“More times than not, some of them haven’t been effective. In fact, sometimes they don’t even meet,” says Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement. “There needs to be a change in that.”

The report suggests replacing these with new Traveller accommodation strategic policy committees.

The parties in the Dublin Agreement has proposed seven strategic policy committees. But not one for Traveller accommodation.

Boylan, the Sinn Féin councillor, was on the Housing SPC before the last five-year council term ended in May, and a new council was elected. Membership of the new council’s SPCs will be decided in September, she said.

“What I would even suggest is that Traveller housing has a proper place on the agenda and be discussed appropriately and given enough time on the agenda,” she says.

“And I would try that maybe before branching out and having a specific [SPC] for Traveller accommodation,” Boylan says.

Perry, the independent councillor, says he thinks Traveller housing was given its fair share of time on the last Housing SPC’s agenda. “It was on the agenda for most [meetings],” he says. “I don’t think there’s a need to have a separate SPC for Travellers.”

Perry says that while he is aware that Travellers are more disadvantaged than the general population, he was afraid that a separate group would just consist of “people talking amongst themselves”.

Issues with the council drawing down designated funding for Traveller accommodation or issues around attendance at meetings should be addressed at the Housing SPC, not by creating a new SPC, he said. “It still provides a forum for discussion,” he says.

Labour Councillor Joe Costello says he’d have “no objection” to having a new Traveller accommodation SPC “if I thought it would be effective”.

“It certainly seems like the local authorities are not using up their quota of funding,” he says.

“A Priority”

The Labour Party is part of the ruling coalition on the council, along with the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and the Social Democrats.

Costello says Traveller housing will be dealt with alongside other housing issues.

The “Dublin Agreement” drafted by those four parties at the start of this council term, as a statement of their plans and priorities, says: “We will work to ensure the complete delivery of traveller accommodation and the complete use of any allocated funds.”

“Obviously we have to deliver for Travellers. It’s a priority too. We must deliver for everybody who can’t afford a roof over their heads,” Costello says. “There has been a lack of delivery for everybody.”

Joyce, of the Irish Traveller Movement, says he thinks the proposed restructure would fast-track the delivery of Traveller-specific housing and ensure that money allocated to local authorities for housing is spent.

“The delivery mechanism, it’s evident that it has failed the Travelling community,” Joyce says. “We’re looking at overcrowded, substandard accommodation. The underspend is just unacceptable.”

But he also says, “While having basic accommodation is important, it’s also incredibly important to have the right fit and meets the right needs.”

[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 8 September at 19.21. An earlier version mixed up household sizes, with number of children. Sincere apologies for the error.]

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Aura McMenamin: is a city reporter covering the south side of the city, and jobs. You can reach her at aura@dublininquirer.com.

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