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Peaky Blindspot

Jake Bowers attends a court case against the hated Police Act passed in 2022 and finds that in Britain’s second city the only good Gypsy is one that has been evicted or invented.

Britain’s second city Birmingham is rightly proud of its multicultural past and present. The low-rise sprawl of this huge city boasts large Asian and Black populations. It gave the world poet Benjamin Zephaniah, actor David Harewood and cultural theorist Stuart Hall. It’s depiction of the fictional mixed-race Romany Shelby family in Peaky Blinders introduced the world to the fact that perhaps its most famous son, Charlie Chaplin, had any Romany identity at all.  This week its court also listened to arguments from Gypsy and Traveller lawyers that Part 4 of the anti-nomadic Police Act breached the European Convention on Human Rights.


Yet if as a nomadic Traveller you try to LIVE in Birmingham you’ll find it has the coldest of hard shoulders. There’s no permanent site in the city or for miles around, and even the transit sites it has are closed or only opened when the police need somewhere to evict you to. You would only know there was one at Proctor Street at all because of the Birmingham City Council sign stating that it is closed.


Yet just 10 miles away in Walsall a different reality has taken shape. Romany activist Abiline McShane is describing to an ITN news crew how she fought long and hard to have a transit site created. “We won by just a single vote when the council voted on it,” she tells me. I’m amazed at the large amount of space for just 6 trailers amongst houses and churches in this urban area. Most transit sites I’ve seen have been on the outskirts of towns, thrown up near dumps and flyovers and surrounded by earthworks and barbed wire, as if the inhabitants are something to be ashamed of. She’s almost offended by my surprise. “Why shouldn’t we have space, if not there might be a fire?” she asks, “why shouldn’t we live among other people?” The site is a concrete example of inclusion in action. It is bold and unapologetic in claiming the right of Gypsies and Travellers to belong. But the six families will soon have to leave in the middle of winter and Abiline hasn’t a clue what she will find for them.


In Birmingham’s administrative court, Marc Willers KC is patiently explaining to Justice Swift in all aspects of law relating to Gypsies and Travellers. He’s the best man for the job having literally written a book on it. Over the course of two days this week he has argued that Part 4 of the 2022 Police Act, which criminalises Gypsies and Travellers that have no space to stay, is breaking the European Convention on Human Rights. If he and the other lawyers that have brought the case on behalf of Romany Gypsy Wendy Smith win then the government will have to change law.  


 “In a nutshell, my lord,” said Willers. “The provisions deliberately target the Gypsy and Traveller way of life, and these provisions are having a chilling effect on the legitimate Gypsy and Traveller way of life.” It may be weeks before the judge decides if he accepts their arguments. But if he does Gypsies and Travellers will join refugees in boats in being the latest thorn in the side of tired and unpopular Conservative Government. It may be one of the best things Birmingham has ever done for us.

After the hearing finished I caught up with Marc Willers to see how it had gone. He said: " I think the case went very well. We explained to the judge that the draconian Police Act enforcement provisions target those Gypsies and Travellers who continue to pursue a nomadic way of life and have no option but to stop on unauthorised encampments because there is a shortage of transit sites and temporary stopping places for them to camp on."

"We made the point that the National Police Chiefs Council and judges in other cases had stated that the obvious solution to the problem was the provision of lawful stopping places and we argued that the government’s decision to strengthen the powers of eviction was not based on evidence that the existing powers were inadequate and was unlawful.’

"We are hoping that the judge will accept our arguments and conclude that the new powers are unlawful and that he issues a declaration that they breach the rights of our client protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Such a declaration will not prevent the new powers from being used but it will then be for Parliament to change the law.’

And if that isn't the outcome? Willers said: ‘If the judge rejects our claim or perhaps just part of our case then we will consider his judgment very carefully and decide whether there is merit in an appeal.’


Outside on the cold streets, there are references galore to edgy Gypsy culture celebrated in the form of Peaky Blinders. From murals to bars and huge sales of cloth caps, Birmingham has been cashing in on Gypsy culture for years. But until it, and the law of this land, matches the efforts of nearby Walsall you can’t help concluding that for Birmingham the only good Gypsy is one that has been evicted or invented.

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