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Injunctions, ‘high’ and ‘low’ impact, and surveillance. We explain what you can expect from the council’s new van policy.

Jim* has been living in a van, on and off, for a decade now. He works in construction, sometimes in Bristol, sometimes further south.

I ask him why he moved out of his house, and he laughs. “House prices, simple as that. They’ve gone nuts, absolute nuts. Everywhere, south coast is absolutely ridiculous. How people get on the market is beyond me.”

The number of people living in vans has soared over recent years. Across the UK, more than 21,000 drivers have applied to convert their van in the last year – an increase of nearly two-thirds in two years – and the council estimates that there are around 200 people in Bristol living in vans on at least eight encampments across the city. They’ve made a policy to deal with resulting tensions.

“I think [injunctions] are concerning… It’s basically banning someone from an area because they have an alternative form of housing which is arguably a violation of human rights”

Bristol’s vandwellers hit the headlines in 2017 after a congregation of more than 50 vehicles parked up in Greenbank, Easton. Residents in houses in areas popular with van dwellers then took action: complaining to the council that they dealt with unsanitary conditions, rubbish, noise and disturbance from some of the van encampments…. The council took action, to, it says, balance the needs of house and van dwellers.

It’s been a month since the council launched their ‘policy for vehicle dwelling encampments on the highway’ after running the consultation over the summer last year, but the Cable understands the policy has been unofficially in use for the past few months. Now they’re in the midst of applying for injunctions to move on vans deemed to be ‘high impact’. Vandwellers say the focus of the policy should be on site provision rather than enforcement.

Jim got in touch with me when the policy was about to go live because he was worried about how it would affect him. He pointed out that he parks up from one to several nights around Bristol when he’s working and avoids other vans. “How is this going to affect contractors like me?” he asked me.

The policy divides encampments into ‘high’ and ‘low’ impact, swiftly evicting vans deemed ‘high impact’ and keeping ‘low impact’ vans under surveillance. High impact can refer to proximity to homes and schools, poor waste management, crime and anti-social behaviour or breach of the peace. Low impact are ones which state an intention of staying a short time only with a deadline, and don’t cause problems for the local environment or community.

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The council promises to balance the needs of people in houses with those of people in vans and say no action will be taken against van owners until welfare, health and education checks are carried out. The policy also states that the council will consider getting injunctions in areas with repeated ‘high impact’ encampments.

“I didn’t think it was too bad, to be fair,” said Jim. “I think they’ve got it about right.

“I can understand how residents get upset by vans being parked up for long periods of time. I tend to keep moving about myself. I won’t actually stay in one area for more than a couple of nights.”

Vandwellers react

But some van dwellers do want to stay in sites for longer periods and live full-time in Bristol, and many of them are not happy with the new approach.

More than 1,400 have signed a petition demanding that Bristol City Council “support and respect the rights of Van Dwellers”, saying that the council needs to reconsider its approach to the policy and that some of the language used was discriminatory.

“I think it’s geared very much towards enforcement rather than provision,” said vandweller and phD student in alternative lifestyles Rhiannon Craft, who brought the petition. She is one of the ‘Bristol Vehicle Dwellers’, a group recently formed to advocate for the rights of vandwellers. They met on Thursday, 24 October to discuss their response to the policy.

Craft worries that the policy is biased towards settled communities – the consultation was mainly filled out by people in houses – and panders to discriminatory views. She anticipates that complaints will be taken more seriously from people in houses than people in vans.

A spokesperson for the council says that the main action they’ve taken since the policy launch has been information gathering – the number of occupied vehicles, where they are and assessing their impact – but that applications for injunctions are underway.

“Preparations are being made to apply for injunctions where encampments have been having a significantly high impact over a prolonged period but there is no further information on those available at this time.”

Craft thinks the focus on such long term sites is discriminatory: “I think [injunctions] are concerning if they are used to ban people from [those] areas living in vehicles. It’s basically banning someone from an area because they have an alternative form of housing which is arguably a violation of human rights.”

Craft is particularly concerned about the effect of the new approach on ‘low impact’ encampments: vans that have been reported by a member of the public or a neighbourhood enforcement officer, but that vandwellers insist aren’t causing any trouble. They’ll still be expected to give a date they’ll be intending to leave by and will be kept under surveillance.

“Keeping people under surveillance like that is pretty questionable,” says Craft. “Being surveyed every three months is quite intrusive, particularly when you see people in houses that are very antisocial, very messy, you don’t see them going round their house every three months. I think it’s still really biased towards people living in houses.”

The petition also criticises the council’s conflation of vandwelling with homelessness, and St Mungo’s involvement – the charity will be liaising with vandwellers – which they say is a waste of the charity’s resources, as many vandwellers don’t consider themselves homeless. They also take exception to the policy’s implication that living in a van is bad for your health.

A group of vandwellers have been working with a Bristol GRT (Gypsy, Roma and Travellers) advocacy group, GRT Voices, to get the council to change the homelessness-related wording of the policy, which they say is discriminatory.

But while for many vandwellers it’s a choice, for some it’s a last resort, says Cllr Paul Smith, cabinet lead for housing in Bristol City Council.

“There is a route into more settled accommodation if that’s what people want,” says Smith. “We’re not forcing anyone to go into settled accommodation if that’s not what they want, we respect some people it’s a choice that they’ve made and as long as they respect others around them that’s perfectly reasonable.”

“What we’ve always said with this is that we’re trying to get the policy right, trying to respect everybody involved, whether they are people living in houses or people living in vehicles.”

He says that the council is currently commissioning more one-bed houses and flats, which there is an acute need for in the city.

“We’re trying to ensure that the new housing that we’re building reflects the needs of the city as they are. That means that we’re building more one bed accommodation than we would have if we were looking at this issue 10 years ago.”

Police involvement limited

The original draft explored police powers but they’re not included in the final policy. When I spoke to Paul Bolton-Jones, neighbourhood team inspector for Knowle and liaison officer for the policy, he was insistent that, while police can move people off land, police powers are very narrow when dealing with MOT and taxed vehicles legally parked on the highway.

“When somebody calls us up and says, ‘What are you doing about that encampment on the Downs?’, actually we’re doing nothing because we’re not afforded power under the law and everything we do has to be human rights compliant…

“It only becomes a police issue if there’s associated crime and disorder or antisocial behaviour, then we get involved. But not in removing them.” 

Solutions

Simon*, another vandweller, says that moving people on isn’t helpful. “It doesn’t last, because it [living in vans] is so oversubscribed. There’s that many doing this now and the road space is so oversubscribed by people living in vans.”

A few of the people I’ve spoken to say that the answer is to provide places vans can park up,  and facilities like toilets and waste collection.

Craft points out that a significant number of respondents called for site provision. Simon agrees. “There’s a lack of joined-up thinking – a bit of land that’s not being used by the council and they wouldn’t think to set that aside or let people use that to help the problem.”

But is this just wishful dreaming in a city with a housing and land crisis? And what of the needs of communities who have been asking for Traveller sites for much longer, such as GRT communities? The answer, it seems, is much more complicated to solve.

*Names have been changed

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Comments

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  • I A Ball says:

    THE REASON WHY THE COUNCIL TAKES THE VIEWS OF HOUSE OWNERS AS A PRIORITY IS THAT HOUSE OWNERS PROVIDE THIS CITY WITH ITS INCOME – WHAT COUNCIL TAX DO VAN LIVERS PAY TOWARDS THE CITY’S EXPENSES?

    • R Craft says:

      Hi there,
      We encounter this argument a lot, and feel there is some misunderstanding.
      There is currently no way for most van dwellers to pay council tax.
      Most van dwellers pay income tax, as well as road tax, like everyone else. Those that don’t are no different to people in houses that avoid tax, and that’s a different matter.
      (Although dodging tax like that is pretty hard now unless youre a big corporation like Amazon…)
      Others are exempt for valid reasons, like students and those on benefits for various reasons.
      A lot of vandwellers are crying out for a system that allows them to keep their dwellings, to pay tax and access the facilities they are currently excluded from (e.g. waste collection).

  • D. Whitt says:

    Assuming as long as they are not causing a hindrance on the streets, the council provide the correct facilities; and the van owners pay council tax to cover the all costs for these facilities its fine. Unfortunately this is not the case, and never will be. So they can either put up or shut up and live with the consequences.

  • Toni Massari says:

    I would like to see the needs of Van dwellers respected, by the provision of sites, but it should be noted that these may NOT be where the van dwellers want to be. Traditionally those areas tend to be close to the City Centre, and near Easton, St. Paul’s and St. Werburgh’s, as the City’s most alternative areas, with shops and venues that are more likely to attract people with alternative lifestyles.

    I disagree with those who claim that van dwellers should pay Council Tax, they live in what are Tiny Houses and use a fraction of the resources of us homoeowners and tenants.
    BUT I woULD like to suggest that perhaps they could contribut in other, non-monetary ways?

    How about litter-picking, once a week, or whenever convenient, removing dangerous needles and broken glass, dog mess and otehr hazards, with appropriate safety supplies, like litter-picking grabbers and colour-coded bin liners, provided by the Council?

    And perhaps some would like to put their green fingers to work for the city’s improvement? if the cOUncil were to designate some areas, would van dwellers be prepared to help plant bee-friendly grass verges and small, marginal areas, away from toxic traffic fumes?

    Or perhaps help with some of the canals that are getting chocked-up with weeds? If the Council were to provide the Team leaders, to provide training, Health & safety supervision and safety equipment, this could free-up these important wildlife corridors that will otherwise become impassable to ducks, coots, voles and the likes.

    It would be good to see a consultation that is NOT adversarial and antagonistic, and invits ALL participants to an event that is concilatory, good-humoured and promotes neighbourly values.

    For that to happen, BOTH sides must make moves towards harmonious living.

    So… how about using the forthcoming Season of Goodwill to come together and hold a celebration with children, animals, elders, food, song and performance art, juggling, acrobats etc?

    THIS is what makes Bristol the beautiful, diverse City it is: that we CAN live together!

    So, let’s make Bristol’s 20:20 Vision what it COULD be: The start of a New Age, of friendship, co-operation, kindness and a shining example for our children of how people can live together, in spite of differences.

    • R Craft says:

      Hi there,

      What a wonderful, reassuring response to read.

      From the meeting and discussions we’ve already had in the community, i think that most of us really do want to co-exist as harmoniously with eachother (and the environment) as much as we can.

      We want to live in a fair city and, like you say, fairness works both ways.

      Many vandwellers really are crying out for a better system that allows them to contribute more.

      I love your ideas to involve more practical skill trades and community responsibility in all of this.

      I will this up at the next community meeting.

      Some great stuff to potentially move forward with I think.

      Thank you!

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