by James Goffin 21 October 2005
They don't pay taxes. They all live in caravans. And they sponge off the state.
Those are just some of the misconceptions about gipsies and travellers a watershed conference in Norfolk yesterday aimed to break.
The Norfolk Gipsy and Traveller Conference at Easton College, near Norwich, brought together members of the communities themselves, the police, local authorities and other agencies in a bid to build better understanding on both sides.
The conference was the first of its kind in Norfolk, despite the fact travelling communities have lived in the county for more than 500 years.
It was opened by Norfolk Chief Constable Carole Howlett, and included sessions on health, education, management of sites and access to support services and justice.
But the event builds on years of work between local authorities, that has seen all seven district councils and the county council create a joint strategy for travelling communities.
They have also worked together with police to agree a way of dealing with illegal camps - the biggest source of conflict between travellers and the settled community - though with more than 350 gipsy caravans in Norfolk but only five local authority sites and seven stopping places, it seems almost inevitable there will be some spill over.
But even that association of the gipsy community with caravans is out of date. Romani journalist Jake Bowers told the conference there was a lot of work to do in breaking pre-conceptions. "Not all of us live in caravans, in fact most of us don't any more. I live in a house, but that doesn't mean I leave behind our culture when we cross the threshold," he said.
"The idea we don't contribute is wrong. Even people that live on council sites can pay £100 a week to live there for a concrete base and a utility block.
"People don't talk about us paying council tax, paying VAT, or the businesses that we have founded."
Even for Norfolk County Council Cabinet member Ian Monson, the conference was an admitted "eye opener".
"The holding of this conference demonstrates our commitment to make positive changes. Holding the conference itself will not make a difference but the partnerships that come out of it can," he said.
Peter Mercer, chairman of the East Anglian Gipsy Council, said he was more positive than for a long time the event was more than a talking shop.
"What we are talking about today, 10 years ago we wouldn't have been talking about at all. I've been to many conferences that haven't gone anywhere, but this time there does seem to be real movement with the police and others to address the problems. They accept there's a lot more to do, and getting together and talking to each other is to the benefit of us all," he said.