Burnley MP accused of ‘racism’ in traveller sites battle

Gordon Birtwistle
Gordon Birtwistle

Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle has hit back after being accused of endangering race relations over his remarks on proposed traveller sites in Burnley.

Mr Birtwistle has been vehemently opposed to the idea of permanent sites in the town since the proposals came to light in Burnley Council’s Local Plan last year.

He said the sites, earmarked for land off Heald Road, Lawrence Avenue and Marlborough Street, were not needed in Burnley and would badly affect local people in the areas where they have been proposed.

In a letter sent to the MP by The Traveller Movement charity, his comments on the issue have been branded “extremely racially prejudicial and offensive”.

However, Mr Birtwistle said he was only doing his job and would not be bullied into backing down.

The letter states: “We believe many of your comments and actions fail to foster good race relations and will only serve to increase fear and distrust between Gypsy and Traveller people and the wider public. While we fully recognise and respect that local residents, councillors and other interested parties are entitled to object to planning proposals in their area, we would have hoped such objections would have been based on reasoned argument and robust evidence. We are extremely disappointed and worried to see little evidence of this in yours and your associated campaigners’ statements.

“Instead of fostering good race relations, your actions and statements have endangered them.”

The charity has raised the matter with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and has copied in a senior solicitor and case worker who works on gypsy and traveller complaints for the Commission.

Mr Birwistle said: “To say I was surprised would be an understatement. They are basically calling me a racist. Everybody knows I am not a racist. I didn’t expect anything like this. I do see it as threatening. They are threatening legal action. For doing what? My job. I represent the people of Burnley and they have asked me to represent them in opposing this. By trying to get me to back down and not do my job, they are interfering with democracy.”

An e-petition opposing the plans was started in September and gathered 1,500 signatures within weeks.

Steve Lupton, who started the petition, said: “All I know is that Gordon has been supporting us throughout all of this and that is what he is supposed to be doing as our MP. I don’t see how he has done anything wrong at all.”

Mr Birtwistle added: “Thousands of people have been opposed to these proposals. They have elected me to fight their corner and that is exactly what I’m doing. This won’t stop me doing what I am doing. I will carry on doing what the people of Burnley want me to do for them.”