Concern as van-dweller numbers rise

Bristol now has the highest number of people living in vehicles across all council areas in Britain after a sharp rise since 2020. 

An estimated 800 people are living inside between 600 and 650 vehicles in Bristol, with the city struggling to balance their needs and neighbours living nearby.

Many van dwellers are living on the Downs, causing frequent complaints from much wealthier people living in houses and flats in Clifton and Stoke Bishop. Complaints include litter and public urination, although Bristol City Council recently closed many public toilets, adding to the problem.

Numbers have shot up from between 100 and 150 before the pandemic, according to a new council report addressing the complex issue. But Conservative councillors accused the mayor of “kicking the can down the road” during a member forum meeting on Tuesday, March 12.

Councillor Geoff Gollop, representing Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, said: “We’re getting very confusing messages. You’re telling us that the area on the Downs is a low impact area, and yet your own waste officers are saying that they will not collect fly tipping from that area because they do not feel safe in doing so.

“That worries me. Who is kicking the can down the road? It feels very much like you are by not taking action on this critical issue. Residents are reporting significant troubles arising from that encampment.”

According to the report, other council areas have a smaller number of vehicle dwellers but a higher proportion, when taking into account the total population of the area. Brighton and Hove have an estimated 300 people living in vehicles, representing 0.1 per cent of the local population, slightly less than the 0.14 per cent in Bristol.

Glastonbury and Falmouth, while smaller areas, have a much higher proportion of people living in vehicles. Glastonbury has a population of 7,000, with 150 vehicle dwellers making up 0.22 per cent of the population. And many councils don’t count the number of vehicle dwellers, making it difficult to compare the scale of the issue across different areas.

Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor, said: “Nobody’s kicking the can down the road. The demographic of people living in vehicles and caravans is switching, from people who may have made it as a lifestyle choice to people who are living in there as a last resort because of poverty.

“We’ll do what we can to bring forward meanwhile sites, we’re bringing forward one in Sea Mills. They’re not always easy to bring forward because you have to put facilities on them as well. 

“We want to treat people in vehicles with the same due care that we treat everyone else in the city with. That means striking a balance between punitive action, that is very limited what’s available to us, and supportive action that we may take with physical and mental health, and also into permanent housing.

“This comes in the context of a housing crisis. One of the things the housing crisis looks like — on top of a cost of living crisis, and the driving down of local government resources, and the failure to support local government to build homes over the last 14 years — is people living in caravans and vehicles, where they can’t afford to be part of our housing stock.”

Reasons for living in vehicles vary, but a common concern is the exorbitant cost of renting or buying a flat or house in Bristol, compared to the relatively cheap cost of a van. 

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service