The stereotypes used against Eastern Europe are as old as they are wrong

The tabloids are smearing Roma – but we've heard these myths before.

If you’ve been following the news recently, you are likely to have come across scare stories suggesting there will be a wave of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. Newspapers often illustrate reports with pictures of ghetto-like Roma settlements in those two countries as their evidence for such a claim. The Sun on 1 March ran the headline “No wonder so many in Romania want a new life in Britain. Revealed: grime life inside Gypsy ghetto,” with the strapline “No wonder 350,000 Romanians are heading to Britain”. An online petition led to a debate in Parliament on 22 April on whether immigration from these two EU Member States should be halted. The point that Romanians and Bulgarians have been able to freely travel and live in the UK as self-employed workers since 2007 is overlooked, as is the fact that Britain (and other EU States) can’t legally extend employment restrictions beyond December 2013.

The Roma stereotype is not new, but a continuation of ingrained prejudice. When Slovakia and other Central and eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004, similar articles surfaced: 

The Daily Express, for example, ran the headline, "Britain won't let us starve: Gypsies say they can't wait to arrive in land of dole and benefits." The article continued to say that, "This most repressed of people see Britain as some sort of promised land where all their prayers will be answered. To them, Britain's economy … can easily sustain Gypsy families where eight children are not uncommon … In Slovakia there are signs that the country is giving its estimated 500,000 Roma Gypsies every encouragement to go."

The Daily Mail published an article entitled, "Benefits Britain, here we come", reporting that, “A ‘disturbing dispatch’ reports on a family of Slovak Gypsies and their dreams of returning to the UK where they once sought asylum. 'How do I get free accommodation?' 47-year-old Viera asks. 'And if my daughter has a baby there,' she says, her eyes lighting up, 'will the baby be British?'"

So it seems we have been reading these stereotyped storylines before. On the same day as this year's debate in Parliament, BBC Newsnight published the results of a survey that showed that very few Bulgarians or Romanians had made any concrete preparations to work or travel to the UK when the employment restrictions end. The BBC found that in Romania just 1% of the total survey sample said they were looking for work in the UK in 2013 or 2014, whether with a recruitment agency or on their own. The findings must have left a few red faces among anti-immigration MPs when people can read and compare two differing views, one based on myth and popularism, and one on fact. 

Just as not all Brits live on sink estates, neither do all Roma live in shanty towns. The Roma are the largest ethnic group in Europe at about ten million people. It’s a nonsense that a stereotype can cover so many people. The award-winning photographer Carlo Gianferro published photographs of the interiors of Roma houses, together with their owners, to help break this stereotype. The portraits won a World Press Photo prize in 2009. The Mail Online ran an article using the photographs with captions claiming that the houses were built on the proceeds of benefit cheating in the UK (the piece has since been removed). Debunk one stereotype and someone will see an opportunity to raise another.

One Roma I know, an amazing young woman, was invited to a luncheon with The Queen during the Jubilee year in recognition of her work with families and young people in Manchester. There are Roma teachers, health workers, police and other professionals in the UK. Many undertake voluntary work. No different to any other ethnic or national group. Yes, some culture and traditions are different. Where would flamenco music and dance be without the Roma? But not all Roma listen to, let alone play or dance flamenco. One Roma friend swears he can’t dance. Neither can I.

It is true that many Roma are subject to racism and discrimination in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. That in a number of those countries there is a disproportionate number of Roma children placed in special needs schools just because of their ethnicity. That was the finding of the European Court of Justice in 2007, DH and others v. the Czech Republic, and little has changed since that ruling. Many live in areas with little opportunity to work and in poor living conditions. More effective use of EU and national funds in Eastern Europe and stamping out the wastage and abuse of this money by the political elite and redirecting it to people working in the communities at most need of support would make a big difference. 

As would eliminating the easy, stereotyped way that Roma are portrayed as thieves, benefit cheats and people traffickers, the largest ethnic group in the EU yet the one with the least listened to voice in media, politics and society. The Community Channel season on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in May and June will go some way to give them that voice, broadcasting programmes without an editorial or political agenda where Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are truly able to contribute their own views to provide a more balanced picture. The season offers fact over myth, and break down stereotypes. Let’s hope UK media with the worst examples catch up and do so soon.

The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Season on Community Channel is on until 14 June and available to view on Freeview, BBC iPlayer, Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision and online via www.communitychannel.org

A young Roma girl does her homework in Romania. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan Anstead is the founder and chief executive of a UK charity, Equality, which works with and for Roma in the UK. The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Season on Community Channel is on until 14 June and available to view on Freeview, BBC iPlayer, Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision and online via www.communitychannel.org

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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