Accusations of racism and cries of ‘shame’ rang from the public gallery at Wandsworth Town Hall as the council debated proposals to seek new legal measures to protect parks and open spaces on Wednesday.
Traveller representatives, anti-racism campaigners and Labour members were among those protesting the council’s proposal for a borough-wide injunction to stop unlawful encampments.
The measure will allow council officers to respond more rapidly to unauthorised incursions, and has been adopted by several other London boroughs.
London Gypsies and Travellers chief executive, Debby Kennett, said: “We believe that borough-wide injunction orders do not offer a solution, and are a disproportionate and discriminatory response to the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers.”
Traveller representatives put forward the alternative option of negotiated stopping, which has been used most successfully in Leeds, and involves working with Travellers to find a mutually convenient site for encampment.
Cabinet member for community services and open spaces, Councillor Steffi Sutters, insisted the injunction would not be an either/or with negotiated stopping, and said if the injunction was granted, council officers would be instructed to use it proportionally and humanely.
Councillor Sutters said: “I accept and celebrate that there is a history and tradition of Travellers living a nomadic lifestyle but encampment on public land is unlawful.
“This paper has a simple ask, we seek an injunction because we believe it is the best way forward against illegal incursions on our public parks and open spaces.”
Councillor Sutters confirmed today that the council was seeking to appoint a named officer to work with Travellers, and hoped this would allow the council to build a better rapport with community members.
Protesters also called for a public apology for the alleged offensive language used by a Conservative councillor at the Community Services and Open Spaces Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting two weeks ago.
Councillor Judi Gasser told the hall that Conservative councillor Dr Hugh Byrne implied members of the Traveller community were illiterate and had warned that Travellers would cremate their dead in caravans on Wandsworth Common.
Councillor Gasser said: “The behaviour we witnessed at the committee meeting was frankly shocking.”
Councillor Sutters did not comment on the allegations but said she was disappointed at the language used by both sides of the committee.
Councillor Byrne has not responded to requests for comment.