Bristol’s Vehicle Dwellers – The Road Not Travelled

Vehicle dwellers' vehicles at a previous, temporary site. The image shows half a dozen vehicles, spread out in a field.
Vehicle dwellers’ vehicles at a previous, temporary site

Our debate on Bristol’s vehicle dwellers and housing can often feel like there is no place for nuance, but that is not the case. Muller Road was scheduled for temporary closure today in order to evict an unlawful encampment of vehicle dwellers to make way for the construction of 32 social houses for the residents of Bristol. However, thanks to the engagement work of our Gypsy, Roma Traveller team, all vehicle dwellers have now peacefully left the site. Muller Road remains open and the eviction does not have to take place. This is not the first time that we have had to involve the Courts as a last resort regarding an encampment of vehicle dwellers in Bristol – this is a citywide challenge.

500 vehicle dwellers in Bristol

The number of vehicle dwellers has grown in Bristol in recent years due to: the impact of the pandemic; the housing crisis; gentrification and the growing appeal of Bristol as a desirable city in which to live. Bristol is estimated to have a population of about 500 vehicle dwellers in various locations across the city. Wider city factors and the national picture which surrounds the rise in numbers means the number of vehicle dwellers is likely to increase across the country and in Bristol.

We believe that Bristol has the largest number of vehicle dwellers of any Local Authority in the country, but we are doing more than any other area to work with this. Bristol is at the forefront of providing facilities for vehicle dwellers, and we have been contacted by a number of other areas, who are interested in what we do and are looking to model their own provision on what is seen as good practice. I am proud of our work in this area, and the approach we are taking which acknowledges the complexities of these circumstances.  

We continue to engage with the vehicle dwelling community, local residents, and to build more houses to reduce the need for so many people to live in vehicles. Our teams work with vehicle dwellers, including vulnerable groups, to offer support and manage the relationship with local residents. Any new encampments are initially approached by council officers, receive a welfare assessment, and are offered any support which may be available to them. There are many reasons why somebody may be living in a vehicle including heritage, out of financial necessity, a profession of travelling work, as an alternative to homelessness, or a different reason entirely. Every situation is unique.

One group that may live in a vehicle are Gypsy, Roma Travellers, who are an ethnic group protected by the Equality Act 2010. Our dedicated Gypsy, Roma Traveller team take our responsibility to this community seriously. However, it is a misconception that all Gypsy, Roma Traveller families live in caravans or vehicles. In Bristol, about 95% of the community live in houses or flats.

Muller Road vehicle dwellers

The Muller Road group are not Gypsy, Roma Travellers, but in order to act fairly and listen to their needs, our council teams have been engaging with the group for months. During this time, the group agreed that they would leave the site by 28th June. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

Where travellers of any type have set up an unauthorised encampment on land (as opposed to on the public highway) the landowner can apply for a possession order through the County Court. Once this order has been granted, the landowner can then arrange for a warrant of eviction to be served on that land and the site can be legally cleared of trespassers. As the Muller Road site is owned by Bristol City Council, we applied for and were granted the possession order and an eviction could now be legally carried out. We do not have the same legal powers in relation to our highways, and as the numbers living in vehicles gains traction, our legal powers have not moved with the times. Central government has issued no legislation to support Local Authorities in navigating this growing cultural issue. Instead we have a problematic Police and Crime Bill which approaches it punitively and could potentially criminalise vulnerable people.

Sites for van dwellers

Some of Bristol’s vehicle dwellers are receptive to our offers of support and alternative provision, and have good relationships with our teams. Other groups do not always fully engage. The group at Muller Road were offered access to meanwhile sites but decided to decline this offer in this instance. A meanwhile site is a piece of land which is not currently in use, or is earmarked for future development, which we offer to vehicle dwellers for a small charge where they are able to access toilets and clean drinking water. We think that it is right and fair to charge a small fee for the services we provide, as everyone who can should contribute to the running costs of the city they live in.

We currently have two successful meanwhile sites with more in the pipeline, which are due to come into operation over the next two to three months. However, we do not have capacity to offer a pitch to every vehicle dweller in the city. Land is in high demand for much-needed homes, especially affordable and social housing. We remain committed to building 2,000 new homes a year, with 1,000 of these being affordable in order to tackle the housing crisis. We know that a lack of affordable, good quality accommodation is a key reason why so many people are now choosing to live in vehicles. We believe a good quality, warm, stable home in a community is one of the single most significant interventions we can make to continue to tackle inequality and turn Bristol into a city of hope.

So, what happens if meanwhile sites are not wanted by vehicle dwellers? Where does an encampment go once it has left a development site/highway/local park? The answer is that, more often than not, they simply move to another part of the city. Some members of the Muller Road group have already set-up another unlawful encampment at another Bristol location. It is therefore hugely important that we consider the unintended consequences of removing an encampment from a site. We must take into account where the group is likely to move and how this will impact the wellbeing of Bristol’s residents and vehicle dwellers alike.

Vehicle dwellers' vehicles at a previous, temporary site. The image shows four vehicles, spread out, in otherwise empty car park.
Vehicle dwellers’ vehicles at a previous, temporary site

The wider picture

Vehicle dwellers are a visible element of wider systemic issues around inequality, the impact of a growing population and the issue of rising gentrification within Bristol. Many residents and vehicle dwellers are attracted to Bristol due to our reputation as a progressive and welcoming city. Bristol’s popularity with those from other parts of the country and abroad, although increasing wealth in certain areas, has resulted in an escalating cost of living, with private rents and house prices unaffordable to many. For this reason, we are seeing a higher level of people who feel forced into vehicles for homes.

The majority of our vehicle dwelling community find themselves living in vehicles out of financial necessity and many are considered vulnerable by our teams. In recent years we have also seen a rise in a percentage of the vehicle dwelling community who have driven to Bristol, attracted by our cultural offer and in response to the recent exposure in the media. Whilst we aim to offer all support that is available and needed by the community, there are some people who have the financial capital to support themselves and live in a building if they chose.

I can understand the frustration of some residents towards people who live in vehicles, particularly those who have been impacted by an encampment. As we saw at the M32 encampment, there can be considerable waste and anti-social behaviour. However, as a city we need to accept that vehicle dwellers form part of our cityscape. As a Local Authority, we want people to have the opportunity to live in a good quality, safe home. How we meet this challenge will define the nature of our relationship to this community. We will support community-led solutions to resolve tensions between all those who call Bristol home and we will continue to improve our response and provision as leaders in this space. In the meantime, I ask that both residents and vehicle dwellers treat each other with respect and act as good neighbours as we continue to build a city in which everybody can thrive.

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