The events of the weekend — one of the most disturbing and bizarre we can remember — should have taught Congletonians several things.
The first is that the Travellers who turned the town into the Wild West have done us a favour: they highlighted how crime-free Congleton is.
Many people in other parts of the country live in daily fear of being verbally abused or being threatened with violence, and just have to live with it. We just had it for a couple of days. You should appreciate how safe life is here.
For those who don’t live in Congleton: a group of extremely antisocial Travellers set up home in the town. We (and doubtless the police) were inundated with complaints: from female joggers being harassed (“It seems it’s not safe to run on your own at the moment” said one personal trainer) to horrible children swearing and being objectionable in shops. “A number of small children started to use explicit words towards one female staff member, even doing the actions what he would do to her,” said one person on Facebook.
The Travellers were throwing stones and dirty nappies at dog walkers, stalked young girls and boxed them in demanding money, and besieged a local gym. Eventually they blocked off a public highway. We experienced it ourselves, seeing a large group force their way out of a restaurant without paying.
It’s also taught the lesson that making allowances for people’s different lifestyles is one thing, but these people were just nasty. Tolerance doesn’t come into it. Whatever your lifestyle, there’s no excuse for intimidation, theft and vandalism.
Why they were here is another thing: some people said there’d been a meeting of travellers in Manchester, others that they had attended a service at St Mary’s RC Church in Congleton; if that’s true, confession must take a long time.
We’ve been trying to be fair to Gypsies and Travellers as a community, but it’s difficult.
We contacted our friend David Burke, who runs the Tuam Herald in Ireland: Tuam, as well as being home to the legendary Saw Doctors, has 7.7% of Ireland’s Travellers.
He said he was “really sorry” to hear about the Travellers.
He wrote: “That’s the kind of thing that makes Irish people cringe. I just hope the average English person realises that we have the same proportion of civilised to barbarian that you have.”
He said that in Tuam, there was a “voluntary, mutually agreed social apartheid” between most of the Traveller community and the so-called settled community (although the vast majority of Travellers now live in houses), though there were exceptions: the captain of the local senior rugby team is a Traveller, and there had been a Traveller Mayor.
He said: “They do their business, patronise local shops, drink in certain local pubs and they don’t cause any more trouble than the settled population. If there are fights, they tend to be among themselves.”
Sadly, none of this rationality and talk of integration helps when you’re facing people who, without putting too fine a point on it, are scum. It does make you wonder if these are the people Ireland doesn’t want.
What frustrates people more is not their behaviour per se but the fact that they were getting away with it: as well as the theft and violence there was the fact that they were parked illegally and most of their cars didn’t seem to have tax discs.
There was a lot of talk about residents confronting them, which seems a bad idea, but the current situation is clearly unacceptable and politicians need to take this on board.
At the next election, we suspect people would rather hear some solutions to the Traveller issue, and not hot air about the EU.
The fact that things CAN be done by elected officials was seen this week: only minutes after police and crime commissioner John Dwyer’s webchat was high-jacked by irate Congletonians, the police turned out in force and evicted most the Travellers.
But it’s clear we need a long-term workable solution that involves more than just townsfolk going all medieval with flaming torches and pitchforks.
We need transit sites, which means someone is going to have a camp built close to them; Cheshire East Council is hampered by the fact that it technically already has a site, in Astbury, which is basically a small estate for settled Gypsies who just don’t want houses: even if there were spare pitches, they’d probably no more want Travellers living next door than anyone else.
Whether the Travellers we had this week would bother to use transit sites is debatable. Probably not. But we probably still need them; at the very least it gives us higher moral ground.
It would be nice to think we could arrive at an amicable solution but in this case it seems that prohibitive measures are all that will work.