An artist speaks about her new film on the crime bill’s trespass laws

Filmmaker Claire Heath speaks with her adoptive father Phillip.

The government’s new Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) entered its latest stage on 18 May. Despite widespread opposition to the bill, including protests that have faced aggressive policing, the government is pushing onwards.

One of the bill’s most notorious clauses is the criminalisation of trespass to set up an unauthorised encampment. This is viewed as an attack on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community, which includes an ethnic component. But the bill also imposes similar problems to non-ethnic nomadic communities such as new travellers.

Two women from Brighton have made a documentary, Resisting Anti-Trespass, to explore how the new law would affect their ways of life. And Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to one of the creators, Claire Heath, to find out more.

“Physically, emotionally, chemically, hormonally”

Several themes arise in Resisting Anti-Trespass, beginning with the importance of non-urban environments to our health. Jess Bayley, founder of the Centre for Ecotherapy, explains early in the film that a connection to the natural environment benefits us “physically, emotionally, chemically, hormonally”.

Phoenix Media Co-op asked Claire what the PCSCB says about the government’s expectations of our relationship with nature. She said the bill is trying to:

gentrify our British culture and ways of thinking to that of our current [Tory] government in the same way [the then Tory government] tried to in 1986 with the Public Order Act. It’s the same thing – history repeating itself. … It’s like by making nature a commodity means we see it as separate to ourselves, when we should be more encouraged to be accessing large open green spaces after this intense period of isolation [during Covid-19]. It’s going backwards.

Sympathy for the landowners

One of the most interesting sections in this documentary is when Claire visits her adoptive family in Southampton. The film makes space for their thoughts, which straddle both disagreement and support for the PCSCB’s trespass law.

Claire’s brother, Chris Heath, says that we “should have laws to stop people” trespassing onto private land. And Philip Heath, Claire’s father, stops short of support for new trespass laws. But he points out that “most people can read and… it clearly says ‘trespassing, you will be prosecuted’”. On the other hand, sister-in-law Kerry Heath says that the police “don’t need more power, they’ve got enough power as it is”.

Phoenix Media Co-op asked Claire for her thoughts about support for trespass laws from people who aren’t themselves landowners. She said:

I think the sympathy for landowners some of my family express is a clever tactic the government play by encouraging people to imagine their own circumstances, i.e. having someone come in your back garden and set up a caravan… [The] government is clever in getting people to imagine their own lives being affected by these minority groups when in reality travellers are not interested in parking up in someone’s little garden in a council estate. They want to be out the way experiencing nature away from the toxic demands of city life.

Claire also explained that presenting her family’s views was a way of reaching a wider audience:

When people see themselves represented in something they connect to it more. We are living in a predominantly white conservative Britain so I wanted to try get the attention of that audience and try to encourage some sympathy for a community of people who have shown me kindness and various role models.

But it was also a “creative way”, she said, of mediating the “wildly different opinions” that her family can have. And in some ways it paid off:

Since we made the documentary I have had feedback from many members of my family and actually their responses have been much more sympathetic towards the travelling communities.

Sleight of hand

Resisting Anti-Trespass illustrates the thoughts that real everyday people have about new trespass laws. It nuances this discussion by showing a latent support the laws may receive from the working class and wider public. But, as Claire argues, this support rests on a political sleight of hand that confuses your back garden with a regressive system of land ownership.

Yet static urban life is not for everyone. In fact, many people may enjoy a nomadic rural life who don’t yet know it. But there’s a chance they’ll never try it because the dominant cultural discourse demonises travellers and says that land justice is only for the wealthy. And with the PCSCB, the government wants to expel that possibility from our imaginations altogether.

Main image via Community Craft Collective/YouTube