Things took a dramatic turn for the Travellers down on Spring Lane in Cork last week. Cork City Council’s Director of Housing presented a report for debate by City Councillors. It proposed a swift reduction in the number of Travellers resident on the Spring Lane site. This was to be achieved by making offers of standard housing to the Travellers and, if and when these offers were not accepted, taking legal action to evict the families.
The report did not refer to two earlier needsassessments done for residents on the site. These both clearly stated that the majority of families on site needed Traveller-specific accommodation.
Worse, it completely failed to mention the 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act which obliges local authorities to provide culturally appropriate accommodation to Travellers where required. It ignored all the partnership processes put in place to involve Travellers in decision-making, such as the Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee and the Traveller Interagency Group.
The situation became dramatic when the report was debated by the City Councillors. They rejected the recommendations. Instead, they agreed a new proposal to invite residents and Traveller organisations to meet City Councillors to discuss solutions to the overcrowding on the site. They firmly set out the way forward in terms of engagement, partnership and consultation.
The majority of the City Councillors took a very different perspective to that of the Director of Housing’s report. They spoke about their understanding of the need to create safe, sustainable accommodation for the Traveller families on site. The debate and the resulting vote is to their credit. They have set a new standard.
This turn of events is evidence of the strength of the campaign that Travellers and Traveller organisations have worked on to build awareness of the situation on the Spring Lane site and to get support across all sectors to address what are, but are not treated as, serious human rights issues. Cork City Councillors have stimulated real hope that this next phase of engagement will lead to real change and long-term, goodquality, culturally-appropriate accommodation for the 150 people who call the Spring Lane site home.
The Spring Lane halting site was built in the late 1980s by Cork City Council with very basic facilities for 10 families. Today it is home to more than 34 families with over 150 people, all of whom are long-term residents. Two thirds of these residents are children. For 30 years, the families who live on the site have been exposed to serious, ongoing health and safety hazards. Official HSE and architect reports have highlighted these hazards.
They include severe overcrowding, very poor sanitary facilities, exposure to raw sewage, rodent infestation, and dangerous and overloaded electricity supply. The drains on the site are malfunctioning and there is recurrent flooding. There are no amenities on the site and no safe play space for the 92 children living there.
For the past three years residents on the site, supported by the local Traveller organisations, have been campaigning for better accommodation.
Central to this campaign has been residents telling their stories and showing their homes to people over and over again. Media headlines captured the impact of this: “A hidden world where our children can’t have their friends over”; “The closest thing we have in Ireland to a shanty town”; “Deeply ashamed of Cork’s Travellers’ living conditions”; “Sewage on site a serious risk to children”; and “This is hell. We are human beings, not dogs”. Residents made a documentary “Spring Lane site: 26 Years of Hardship”, which has been screened twice, including in the Triskel Arts Centre.
Emergency work to address the urgent safety issues was the first demand of the campaign. Over the last year, there has been some success. The Council undertook considerable work to upgrade and make safe the dangerous electricity supply. It upgraded the broken and pock-marked internal road and the street lighting. It replaced many of the worst-quality mobile-homes and provided emergency portable toilets.
A long-term solution to the accommodation crisis, however, is the goal. The residents have developed a Community Manifesto which sets out proposed solutions, including the provision of standard accommodation for one group of residents and the development of new, Traveller- specific (group housing or halting site) schemes for the other residents.
Meanwhile, many families remain without water or toilets, some continue to live in old damp mobile-homes, all families live with daily overcrowding, and the children continue to have no safe place to play. People’s health, mental health and life expectancy suffer.
The impressive new resolution among Cork City Councillors must now advance these solutions and end this inhumane situation.