Chris Webster argues that reprieve for the showpeople in Feltham came about as their council realised it had completely misjudged them.
Hounslow Council’s decision to rethink the zoning of their latest housing development is a victory for showmen nationwide – not just in Feltham. It took a year for the reversal to come about – for legislators to make the leap from a stance of “you have to go” to “never mind, you can stay.”
I suspect the impetus behind this miraculous turnaround was twofold.
Firstly, councillors had no idea the degree of support that Feltham’s showmen enjoyed within the wider community. God knows it’s difficult to rouse people to support a cause which doesn’t directly impact them – but that’s exactly what happened in Hounslow: with literally hundreds of placard-bearing protesters taking time out of their day last winter to rally to the side of a people they thought were being treated unjustly.
This degree of support included the eye of the national media:the broadsheets,the major news networks. All of a sudden, Feltham’s showmen weren’t a bunch of nobodies that could be swept under the carpet – they were people: with names,with heritage,and perhaps most importantly, with homes.Which brings me to the second piece of the puzzle. I strongly suspect, as does showmen spokeswoman Yasmin O’Brien, that initially Hounslow council had no idea that the showpeople held the freehold to the land at both the Station Road and Bedfont Lane sites. This supposition was based on another ignorance – that the showmen were itinerant gypsies. O’Brien told me that on numerous occasions council chair Steve Curran referred to her in just these terms – reassuring her that the council had no axe to grind against travellers such as herself. O’Brien was quick to correct him on this point – and it was perhaps then that legislators began to realise the scope of their error,and its potential political fallout.
As I say – a victory for showmen nationwide. For if Feltham serves as anything, it is as an example for other regional authorities that you misunderstand them – and the role they play within the community – at your peril.