The Travellers community in York, as with anywhere, is a subject of debate for the general public. Communities across the UK find the same difficulties of finding sites, work and living within established towns and cities without friction. The legal status of sites, even council controlled ones similar to the three in York, can cause divided opinion for the residents around them.
Often (sadly) the reputation of travelling communities in one area is radically affected by the actions of travellers elsewhere and how these have been represented in the media, even though they may have no contact or relation to them or crimes. The difficulty in the press and media is that programmes such as ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ have destroyed the frail trust that existed between select individuals and the travellers. The way in which this minority has been represented in the media has been more often than not been imbibed with a hint of the freak-show, MBFGW bringing the cultural practices into the home for millions of people to gawp at. The show has become water cooler conversation, with people allowing this specific representation to become the blanket opinion of the society in which these people live. The result of this form of cheap television has made any criticism of the travelling lifestyle a difficult practice, the softly softly approach of not looking at the issues surrounding the communities has taken over. Discussing a minority is always a difficult task, especially when that minority is unrepresented and often unable to talk back through the same medium. The York Travellers Trust goes some way in righting the wrongs, trying to provide an outlet for information which can inform the way we think and talk about this. However, as with most things in Britain, the pub conversation tends to overrule any sensible discussion we have. Feelings and prejudices sneak into the calmest of people and the shrieking fear of the unknown manifests itself. On the other side, it is true to say that the denial of the exploration of the subject, often enforced by those who fear reproach, is as damaging as any uninformed diatribe. To not talk about it is as bad as airing one’s ignorance.
The problem in York has been drawn out again by the setting up of a new phone line for stray horses in the area. Osbaldwick Councillor Mark Warters suggested that the phone line could help the police deal with calls, reporting horses on roads, parks or tethered on council land. The focus of the argument for the hotline seems to be that council officers would be better suited to dealing with the problem, saving hours of police time and freeing up phone lines for emergency calls. Inundated with phone calls, even the RSPCA now has a different approach to the mistreatment of horses and dogs owned by travellers, calling them ‘working animals’ which do not require the same standards of living and thus need not be dealt with by RSPCA animal welfare officers. What is clear from the establishment of this separate entity and phone line is that a new way of reporting and dealing with the problems caused by travellers’ horses is needed. The use of council officers instead of police clearly shows that Mark Warters believes that the mistreatment of animals is not a matter for criminal investigation. Where he suggests that the hotline is a necessity due to the “indifference” of York council, bearing in mind that horses have strayed onto roads in the York area a number of times in recent months, with two being killed when they were struck by vehicles, it seems like the least appropriate time to halt a criminal investigation into this matter.