It’s a happy conclusion for Feltham showmen fighting construction of new housing development by Hounslow Council – after legislators announced their homes were safe…for now.
For over a year the showmen community in Feltham has been waging an uphill battle.
The west London suburb has been home to showpeople since 1905 – after a group of families put down roots in what was then little more than a farming village.
From these homesteads, showmen have borne direct witness to the evolution of Feltham into its modern-day, bustling self – with one local recently telling the Guardian he considered them“a vital part of the heritage of this town.”
But last October, that heritage looked to be in peril.
Hounslow Council informed showmen living on a site in Station Road and nearby streets that their area had been slated for a new housing development, forming part of a wider redevelopment effort – the Feltham Masterplan. The message was clear: at some point in the near future, they’d have their bungalows and chalets bought out from underneath them, and they’d be forced to leave.
But not if community spokeswoman Yasmin O’Brien had anything to do with it.
“From the outset, our position was simple: we’re not selling, and we’re not leaving,” she told Coinslot.
It was O’Brien who went into a frustrating February meeting with Hounslow Council on behalf of her family and others – seeking to get the most basic answers from local legislators.
When would this proposed work start? Exactly who would be affected and where on earth were these people supposed to go? Had any alternative site for them been sourced?
The response she received was confounding.
“We’d repeatedly pitched these questions to the council in numerous emails – it was the whole point of us meeting,but when we arrived, councillors claimed to have never seen them, and actually seemed a bit perplexed as to why we were meeting at all,”she recalled. “My central question was ‘what happens to us next? The only thing I was told was: ‘how long is a piece of string?’”
By this time, word had gotten out of the showmen’s plight. Two hundred Feltham residents peacefully protested outside the building where O’Brien met with councillors, alongside a small host of television and film crews documenting what was by now being regarded on the national level as a great social injustice.
But last week – everything changed. An oft-delayed, second face-to-face between showmen and councillors had been slated for Tuesday, but was can- celled last minute – only for O’Brien to be asked to meet with the council-members prvately. She was told only that they had “important news” for her.
“I was apprehensive, to be honest – I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” she said. “The pressure of the whole thing had already taken a massive toll on so many people.”
She needn’t have worried.
“We have listened to the residents who would be affected by our proposals to redevelop the two show people sites in Feltham,” announced Hounslow Council leader Steve Curran, following the meeting.
“I am pleased to say we have agreed alternative arrangements for delivering our social housing commitments, which excludes the two show people sites.”
The council had backed-off – the showmen had won.
It came as a tremendous relief for O’Brien – who privately suspects that developers had initially been unaware that the showmen owned their own homes. Nonetheless, she attributes the victory largely to the unprecedented level of support their cause garnered from the wider public.
“I think it’s a historical moment for show people, really,” she said. “We were cheered on by so many strangers – there was so much interest and compassion from so many people, so much media interest, it was really quite over- whelming.”
And so for now, the battle is over. But the war may not be won. O’Brien was told that the showmen sites would be exempt from this particular housing scheme – but not the overriding, longer-term Feltham Masterplan. In private, Curran told O’Brien that council’s decision might serve as only a temporary reprieve – buying them some time, but not indefinite immunity.
Thus, the same battle-lines may well bee drawn again. But, if they are, O’Brien maintains there’ll be one key difference.
“Next time, we’ll be waiting for them.”