I’ll make this clear at the outset: I’ve got no beef with travellers. (I do have a beef with criminal and anti-social behaviour, whoever it’s committed by, but that’s a different story). Although I’ve never met any genuine Roms, I’ve known plenty of New Age travellers and water-gypsies who live on boats – perfectly decent folk who, for whatever reason, choose to live outside mainstream society. Besides, travelling is our common ancestry; all humans started out as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and a small section of the population – gypsies, itinerant workers and travelling show-people – maintain the roving lifestyle to this day (frequently as the objects of prejudice and deep suspicion on behalf of the static population). So I view the travelling life as part of our shared cultural heritage, and in that respect, as worthy of protection and preservation as our historic landscapes and buildings. And therein lies the rub at Towton, site of the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, and long placed on the English Heritage register of battlefields at risk from, among other things, development and change of land use.
Back in 2009, risk became reality when a traveller bought a plot of land called The Gallops in Towton village, laid down hard standing, parked a caravan there and retrospectively applied for planning permission. Unsurprisingly, this generated a massive upsurge of protest from local residents and concerned members of the wider heritage community. Faced with this outcry, Selby District Council initially refused the application; but when the site owner appealed, had to grant temporary planning permission until January 2014, conditional on a number of criteria being met (to date, as I understand it, none of them have been). Underlying this decision was a serious problem: if the traveller had to move, there was nowhere for him to relocate to, because the Selby district is badly under-provided with suitable sites to accommodate people staying in or travelling through the area.
This deficiency was acknowledged by the council, who put together a very sensible policy on travellers. It stipulated that an adequate number of pitches should be provided in locations with privacy and screening, good access to the road network, local shops, schools and other amenities, and NOT on sites of historical, natural or archaeological significance. It all looked great on paper… but five years down the line, nothing has happened to implement this policy. So last week, the meeting to discuss the granting of permanent planning permission at The Gallops was held against the backdrop of the site owner, and other travellers in the Selby district, still having no other place to go.
From a heritage and green belt preservation perspective, all the arguments mustered against the development since 2009 still hold true. The Gallops falls within the extended battlefield boundary currently under review by English Heritage (thanks to strenuous lobbying by leading Towton archaeologist Tim Sutherland and the Towton Battlefield Society). Towton village is known to have been one of the sites of the rout, as defeated Lancastrians fled the field hotly pursued by the Yorkist army on Palm Sunday 1461. So The Gallops could well contain battle-related artefacts and possibly human remains – hence any further development of the site, or disturbance to sub-soil features, threatens the archaeology of a nationally and internationally-significant heritage site.
Added to this are the wider issues of adherence to planning legislation. If permanent planning permission were to be granted at The Gallops, it would set a most worrying and undesirable precedent: that anyone could purchase land and begin to develop it, safe in the knowledge that the council would do nothing except, eventually, cave in to the fait accompli.
These were the grounds on which I added my voice to the latest hue and cry (as I would oppose any development or change of land-use in this area). Despite the meeting having been announced over the Christmas holiday period, over 170 members of the public registered overwhelmingly negative comments on Selby District Council’s website. (Disappointingly, English Heritage failed to take a similar stance; they seem to believe that the caravans presently on site constitute no risk to the archaeology, completely disregarding the likely consequence of further development and disturbance if the planning permission is granted and The Gallops becomes a permanent traveller site). Some 40 people also attended the meeting at which, according to two Battlefield Society committee members present, there were NO votes in favour of permanent planning permission being granted. The proposal was accordingly rejected.
On the face of it, this is good news for Towton – but the story is unlikely to end here. The meeting, having been badly publicised, must be held again (although apparently the decision will not be overturned). The site owner may, and probably will, appeal; and there is always a possibility that central Government will intervene to reject Selby District Council’s decision and grant permanent planning permission. So altogether, I see it as a catalogue of disastrous failure: by English Heritage, who despite recognising Towton as a battlefield at risk have done zip to mitigate said risk; and by Selby District Council for not acting on their own policy to provide quality alternative pitches for the travelling community in their area.
Talk about a no-win situation…