Authorised Gypsy/Traveller sites in Scotland are likely to be located near sewage plants, recycling and refuse centres, industrial estates and motorways, an investigation for The Ferret has found.
Using the Scottish Government‘s official count of sites, The Ferret mapped 28 sites in Scotland and used Google Maps to establish how near they were to a number of potential hazards to health including pollution. These included busy A roads, railway lines, rivers, canals, and areas affected by flooding and other water-related problems.
Some sites are in areas that may present a risk to health. Living near water can present issues for residents including pollution, vermin and flooding.
The new analysis is the most comprehensive mapping of authorised sites in Scotland, revealing they are routinely located on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ isolated, and with poor access to services.
Human rights campaigners said that while recent funding by the Scottish Government for Gypsy/Traveller sites was welcome, it has not addressed “the unhealthy and or dangerous location of sites”. They said that until new sites are built in good areas, upgrading is nothing more than “papering over the cracks”.
The Scottish Government said it is “committed to providing good quality homes and living environments to meet the diverse needs of communities” across Scotland.
The Ferret’s analysis selected indicators of unhealthy places, using sources such as Natural England’s research on environmental justice, international research on air quality and roads, and work from Network Rail on the health effects of living near railways and stations due to diesel trains and other pollutants, including noise.
Bobbin Mill, in Pitlochry – one of Scotland’s most infamous sites – is near a railway line which is next to a former gasworks.
The site was one of those designated for the so-called “Tinker Experiment”, where the Scottish Government and councils provided spartan housing in exchange for expecting Scottish Gypsies and Travellers to assimilate.
In many cases, children were removed from the care of their parents. A state apology for the experiment is still being sought, notably by members of the McPhee family and others.
The site dates back to 1947, when Charles McPhee, a returning Second World War veteran was granted a 99 year lease on the land in Pitlochry estate by Perth and Kinross council.
The McPhee family were provided with a war-time Nissan hut which had formerly been used for prisoners of war. It had asbestos in the room partitions, which was not removed until the 1980s. At that time, despite paying rates and rent, the family had no electricity, water or sewerage facilities.
Roseanna McPhee, a community activist who has lived on the site all her life, told The Ferret that she and other family members camped on the land in ancient caravans so they didn’t have to share the one bedroom.
She and six other residents remain concerned about the living conditions on and location of the site, which was only linked up to utilities in the early 2000s.
The Nissan hut was finally removed in 2010 and residents were then offered second-hand chalets. The council is now doing some maintenance on the 25-year-old chalets, although it is very limited and is the first, McPhee said, for some 13 years.
Despite its woodland location, the area around Bobbin Mill is getting increasingly busy. The residents now live near two car parks, as well as the station and a community hospital and ambulance depot.
McPhee said that “caravanettes and other (tourist) vehicles” now camp there overnight from Thursday to Sunday, sometimes running generators all night.
She claimed the health of the residents, already fragile, with many having disabilities, has declined further. “The actual site, in the woodland, is nice,” she said, d: “[But] you can hear the cars, the caravanettes, the trains, the ambulances and buses to the hospital all day and night now. And we all have worse coughs now, asthma, with the pollution.”
She noted that their health improved during Covid, when the place was in lockdown – but now it has deteriorated once again.
The problems facing residents of Bobbin Mill are replicated in traveller sites across Scotland. Of the sites mapped in Scotland: 13 out of 28 (46 per cent) were 50m or less from the hazards and locations with pollution and environmental degradation, with 15 out of 28 at 100m or less (54 per cent), and 21 out of 28 (75 per cent) at 300m or less.
These findings compare to similar research done in England, where there were far more sites (242) but slightly fewer in unpleasant locations – 36 per cent at 50m or less), 51 per cent at 100m or less and 72 per cent at 300 m or less. In Wales, site location of the 21 identified and mapped was significantly worse – (62 per cent at 50m, 86 per cent at 100m, 100 per cent at 300m or less).
Of the Scottish sites, fewer were near sewage stations than England and Wales, but many were near A roads and industrial estates. Some were very isolated, which may have healthcare implications.
A site in Angus is on the site of a former medical waste dump, cut off from the town and near a railway line, while another site in South Lanarkshire is sandwiched between two roads and in an industrial zone. One site in West Dumbartonshire is near a railway line and on the access road to the tip.
Four had flooding issues, with a further one being near to a river which was polluted from an old colliery in 2020.
Scottish Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) requests to all councils revealed that the most common complaint from Traveller tenants was linked to vermin on the sites with replies from Angus, South Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Falkirk all complaining about the issue. A reply from North Ayrshire council also revealed complaints about stinging insects and blocked drains. Other complaints included issues with sewage.
Problems with vermin were a problem for site residents across the whole of the UK, the wider research found, as were complaints about sewage, exposure to air, noise and land pollution, blocked drains and infestations.
McPhee was not surprised by the findings. Another site she knows well at Cupar, in Fife, is also undergoing maintenance, but some residents are unhappy with the units they are being provided with – and remain concerned about the site location.
“There is a huge pylon on the site, and residents have told me that they have to take what amounts to shipping containers if they want new builds,” she said.
“They thought they had been promised chalets, and the containers are long grey things, with no windows in the back of them. They also say that they are being told to move down the site to an area which floods. Indeed, the mapping done by The Ferret shows that the site is only 20m from water, and just 83m from industry.”
This research comes hot on the heels of the Scottish government’s implementation of its five year £20m action plan on accommodation for community members, starting with a number of ‘demonstration’ projects in three council areas. This followed the government criticising several councils for the lack of safe sites for community members in 2018.
The Ferret previously found that money from the Scottish Government’s fund, which was announced in March 2021, was not distributed until 2022. Community members then said they had been waiting for improvement for years, and had reported issues with termites, mould and sewage.
Dr Lynne Tammi, honorary chair of Article 12, a human rights organisation in Scotland, who has Gypsy/Traveller heritage, said: “This research identifies what many have been raising for some time. Whilst the Scottish Government has made funding available for site upgrades, and that is welcome given the substandard nature of many, this doesn’t address the unhealthy and or dangerous location of sites. Unless and until new sites are built in good areas with access to bus routes, schools and so on, upgrading is nothing more than papering over the cracks.”
Colin Clark, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland, added: “This innovative data journalism work unfortunately confirms what we already know: if you stay on a local authority Traveller site you will be close to hazards that nobody wants as a neighbour.”
He claimed that while he welcomed the upgrading of some sites, it was not happening fast enough. “Whether it is industrial estates, sewage works, A roads or vermin, you will likely have to contend with unacceptable situations and significant barriers to having a quality of life that most settled people in houses take for granted,” he said.
A Scottish Government spokesperson told The Ferret: “The Scottish Government’s £20m Gypsy/Traveller Accommodation Fund is developing examples of model public sites that meet the varying needs of families, including children, older and disabled people. Our Interim Gypsy/Traveller site design guide gives parity with social housing standards, designed around the cultural needs of residents.
“Recent changes to Scottish planning policy and legislation will ensure Gypsy and Traveller communities are properly involved in planning their places. A new inclusive definition of Gypsies and Travellers, specific to planning purposes, will ensure effective future engagement.”
Perth and Kinross Council said: “”We remain committed to delivering on improvements to the provision of Gypsy/Traveller accommodation and facilities in Perth and Kinross, in line with both Scottish Government and our own plans.”
Photo thanks to Roseanna McPhee
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This story was updated at 9.47am on 13 April 2023 to add a comment from Perth and Kinross Council.