On Christmas Eve I saw a man wheeling a shopping trolley with a fridge in it down Cemetery Road (on the road, not the pavement) towards the motorway bridge. It made me laugh, I even tweeted about it with the hashtag “Only In Holbeck”.
The two hot topics for comments on the blog this week are prostitution and gypsies (or travellers, or Roma – I’ll use the term traveller in this artcle for ease of reading, but I mean no disrespect). Both these issues are centred on Holbeck. Holbeck seems to have a lot of these intractable problems, why is that?
Holbeck is a (relatively) small neighbourhood, isolated from the rest of Leeds by the motorway, the railway and various dual carriageways. It’s a place most people skirt round rather than go through. It’s got itself into various vicious circles: it doesn’t have a good bus service because there aren’t enough people there using the service, people don’t want to live there because there isn’t a good bus service.
Other services have shrunk – the shopping offer isn’t good and Holbeck hasn’t had a big brand supermarket since Kwiksave shut up shop there a few years back. Last I heard there was only one GP and he was about to retire so hadn’t invested in a modern surgery building.
There is a small core population of mostly older people. People move in because houses are cheap and/or available. If they improve their circumstances, get a better job, they move out. The result is that the area remains impoverished, but also that many people have no stake in the area. They are not planning to stop so they don’t care about dropping litter or annoying the neighbours.
This is the perfect location for pimps to house their prostitutes. Like any businessman they want to keep their overheads low so cheap housing is important. One of the problems that the charity Joanna, which works to help women leave prostitution, has identified is that the women who try to make the move are then rehoused back into Holbeck, precisely because the area is less popular and properties are more available. It’s another vicious circle.
The issues around gypsies, Roma and travellers are equally challenging. We don’t have enough permanent or transit sites in Britain, we don’t have enough in Leeds. Councils are worried about being the first in the region to build in case it attracts even more travellers to their area. No Councillors want a site built in their ward because it’s unpopular and they’ll lose votes.
A lot of people don’t like travellers, it is said they don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us (the settled community) that they are above the law. I would suggest that if you were constantly being evicted from temporary sites that you wouldn’t feel “above the law”. There is a real problem with rubbish and sanitation, but this could be easily overcome and often is with provision of skips and portable toilets.
Why don’t some travellers seem to care about their temporary neighbours? It seems to me there has been a fundamental breakdown of trust. Travellers get a pretty raw deal in Britain not enough sites mean they must camp illegally and inevitably get evicted. They have poor access to education. Leeds has a very good Gyspy Roma Traveller education team, but they are being cut back like the rest of Council.
Who started it? I suspect we did, but when was a problem ever resolved by establishing who threw the first stone? Both sides (especially the settled community) need to put history to one side and find a new way forward. Travellers have been part of the South Leeds community for centuries, perhaps we should try and be a bit more welcoming?
Until recently I would have suggested a new site, or preferably several small transit sites in South Leeds. And yes I would vote for one on my street. But I read a very interesting article on the Leeds GATE (Gyspy and Traveller Exchange) website about “Negotiated Stopping”. This may be a better solution as it provides more leverage over the travellers to change any anti-social behaviour.
So getting back to Holbeck. Steve Williamson makes the point in his comment that one of the factors is that there are lots of vacant sites in the area. Perhaps getting those sites developed will reduce the opportunities for encampments as well as creating local jobs?
It sounds glib, but the answer for Holbeck is regeneration. Not a magic wand wielded from on high, but a bit here and bit there. Good schools that families don’t want to move away from; quality housing like the new homes being built near the Moor; local jobs; a better environment. It’s not easy or quick, but it’s about turning that vicious circle into a virtuous circle.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.