A van dweller argues that community and council engagement could find solutions that suit Bristol’s diversity and tolerance.
The issue of van dwellers’ presence on the streets of Bristol has hit the headlines, both locally and nationally, over the last fortnight. Pressure is building on the council to implement solutions that will appease both house residents and van dwellers – but what could those solutions look like?
Following a community meeting in Greenbank two weeks ago, attended by Easton residents and some of the van dwellers who are currently living on the road next to the cemetery, many of the problems for both van dwellers and local residents came to light. On Monday 2nd, local councillors met to discuss vans and caravans in Ashley Ward. They read out an open letter from a group of van dwellers outlining their ideas.
The van-dwelling population in Bristol is a growing one. Though van-dwellers have their different needs and motivations for living this way, low wages and high rental prices are common factors. The housing crisis is becoming increasingly visible in Bristol with many tents around the city centre and live-in vehicles – including my own – dotted around Easton, St. Werburghs and elsewhere.
Common concerns of residents include van dwellers’ access to and use of facilities and worries about anti-social behaviour. While van dwellers (and many local residents) would surely appreciate more public toilets, taps and bins, some residents worry that such council provision would attract unsustainable numbers of van dwellers to the streets. Others feel that providing toilets is a basic necessity to maintain hygienic conditions in the city. However, many van dwellers are quite self-sufficient and have compost loos and showers in their vans or else use amenities at friends’ and families’ houses.
The vast majority of van dwellers are respectful and conscientious members of their local communities, though the odd story of public defecation inevitably arises and gets linked with those parked up on the streets. Van dwellers are not a homogenous group. Some more vulnerable people who suffer with mental health problems or addictions find refuge in vans or caravans and others hold down full-time employment alongside a van-dwelling lifestyle.
Another issue is that of ‘overcrowding’ of live-in vehicles in certain locations, such as Greenbank cemetery. Van dwellers often park up together to feel secure. As reported previously, discrimination against van and caravan dwellers is not uncommon. It was pointed out at the meeting in Greenbank that “a caravan has recently been burnt out under the M32”, and many caravans have their windows smashed. It is much safer to be in a group when parked up on the street.
Seeking long-term solutions
Some vehicle dwellers’ need for basic security and residents’ concerns about overcrowding of vans and caravans on a few of Bristol’s streets are now being discussed by the council.
One possible solution is the use of council-owned land for van dwellers to live on. Currently many sites around the city are left dormant, sometimes for years, before they are developed. While some van dwellers like being able to move around regularly for work or personal reasons, others would much prefer the privacy and safety that small and temporary plots of land would provide.
Laws and bureaucracy around live-in vehicles on sites can be complicated. An idea put forward by a few van dwellers in their open letter is that the council could hire them as non-profit live-in security. Currently Bristol City Council use taxpayers’ money on security for empty sites. Instead they could save money by allowing van dwellers to live on and secure these sites for free. Rather than being provided for by the council they could actively provide the council a money-saving service. If van dwellers were on a secure self-managed site rather than the street they could rent their own toilets and bin facilities. A second idea is that the council make it legal for owners of industrial sites to rent to van dwellers who could make use of empty sites.
Until the council provide affordable housing it is likely more and more people will resort to living in vehicles, caravans, tents or rough-sleeping. If the council fail to provide adequate sites for van dwellers it is likely more council money will be spent evicting them from empty sites and even more on sites’ security. Hopefully the engagement between van-dwellers, local residents and the council will facilitate long-term solutions to the issue characteristic of Bristol’s diversity, tolerance and creativity.