Travellers must be free to follow the lifestyle of their choice, writes Peter Manson
Let them stay
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has called for it to be halted. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights agrees. But still the establishment insists that the eviction of the 52 traveller families from Dale Farm in Essex must proceed and their community broken up.
The 10-year stand-off with Tory-controlled Basildon council has come to a head because of the point-blank refusal of either Basildon or nearby districts to grant permission for another legal traveller site anywhere in Essex. Of course, council leader Tony Ball does not admit that a decision has been taken not to allow any more such sites (he does say that Basildon has far more than its ‘fair share’). He prefers to talk of the Dale Farm residents’ “criminal” behaviour in refusing to abide by court orders for them to leave what is, after all, a “green belt” site. But Basildon seems to have no compunction in allowing the development of the green belt at several other locations, one of which is to be used for an upmarket housing estate.
As everyone knows, the particular tiny corner of the green belt that is Dale Farm was previously a scrapyard before the travellers purchased it. The BBC website features ‘before and after’ aerial photographs of the plot, which show that in 1999 a third of its area was piled high with hundreds of old bangers. Dale Farm is actually situated alongside a legal travellers’ site and has the effect of doubling its size by extending it into the adjacent field.
The extra space was needed because travellers were being evicted from other sites. In January 2004, for example, families were forcibly removed from Twin Oaks in Hertfordshire (from land they owned, as at Dale Farm) and they relocated to the illegal site in Essex. In his high court judgement of May 6 2008, which gave Dale Farm residents temporary permission to remain, Justice Collins stated: “I have seen a video which shows how the bailiffs employed by [Hertfordshire] council (who, it seems, this council proposes to use if enforcement can take place) acted. The conduct was unacceptable and the evictions were carried out in a fashion which inevitably would have led to harm to those affected … The police presence at Twin Oaks failed to curb the excesses of the bailiffs.”
Justice Edwards-Stuart, who on September 19 granted the last-minute injunction halting the evictions from Dale Farm until at least September 23, voiced similar apprehensions. He was concerned that bailiffs “may go further” than the terms of the enforcement notices. But this victory will be a short-lived one, if the political and legal establishment gets its way. He told the Dale Farm representatives: “I appreciate it is a deeply unpleasant situation, but unfortunately this is a road which is reaching its end and there is sadly no mileage in prolonging the agony.”
In response the residents issued a statement on September 20, which urged Basildon council to “take this time to fulfil its responsibility to find and approve a legal and culturally suitable site for the Dale Farm community. Dale Farm residents and supporters urge Basildon to take up the offer made by the Homes and Communities Agency for land and funding in the Basildon area.”
The reference to the Homes and Community Agency concerns its offer of the use of land it owns in nearby Pitsea. But John Baron, Tory MP for Basildon and Billericay, launched a campaign amongst the local population to prevent its use - backed up by a council ‘(dis)information bulletin’. Permission to use the land was withheld on the grounds that some unexplained “disturbance” might ensue. Every attempt to find the families - many of whose children have never lived anywhere other than Dale Farm - an alternative site has been thwarted. The council has been playing to, and exacerbating, anti-traveller prejudice amongst its Daily Mail-reading voters, with the result that parents have been withdrawing their children from schools attended by Dale Farm kids.
It was the despicable John Baron MP who on September 7 asked in the Commons whether the prime minister agreed that the travellers “should be in no doubt that the government fully support Basildon council and Essex police in reclaiming this green belt land on behalf of the law-abiding majority”. The answer was never in doubt. Cameron condemned the “illegal development” and said: “I completely agree with the way in which he put his question.” He made it clear that Basildon council will receive government cash to help with the estimated £18 million eviction costs.
Even more disgracefully, Labour leader Ed Miliband also jumped on the anti-traveller bandwagon. Employing his usual slimy phrasing, he avoided a direct response to the question he was asked and said: “The law does have to be upheld right across the country, whatever background people are from, wherever people are.” In other words, Miliband too agrees that these families should be thrown onto the street.
Back in 1976, an official report estimated that there were some 40,000 travellers, or gypsies, in England and Wales, three quarters of whom had nowhere they could lawfully stay. This resulted in a government scheme whereby central funding was given to councils to provide sites. They were obliged to “take into account” the “need to accommodate gypsies” in planning applications. But, as Justice Collins commented in his 2008 judgement on Dale Farm, “This was all swept away by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.” From now on, “planning applications should be determined solely in relation to land use factors”.
In February 2006 another change was signalled by the Labour government as part of its ‘respect’ agenda. It aimed to “increase significantly the number of gypsy and traveller sites in appropriate locations with planning permission, in order to address under-provision over the next three-five years” and to “identify and make provision for the resultant land and accommodation requirements”.
In December 2007 a government task group reported that “the scale of the problem” was in reality “small”. In contrast to the situation in 1976, now 75% of travellers lived on authorised sites, whilst the remainder “only require about 4,000 pitches, or less than one square mile of land across the country”. In relation to Dale Farm, the report concluded that if the agreed policy were “implemented with vigour by central and local government”, then the £18 million needed to evict the residents could be saved, and “the life chances of this most deprived ethnic minority group greatly enhanced”. The report concluded by urging that “the task of providing sufficient suitable sites is addressed with the utmost urgency”.
All to no avail. Planning permission for Dale Farm was rejected, as was the appeal to secretary of state Ruth Kelly. The Labour minister regretted that the “very special circumstances” needed to outweigh the “damage” to the green belt were absent. Obviously the fact that 50 families would be made homeless was not considered sufficient qualification. True, Kelly thought it “reasonable to assume” that eviction would result in “interference with the appellants’ home and family life”, but (readers are advised to have the sick bucket ready at this point) the secretary of state felt that such “interference” had to be “balanced against the harm to the green belt and to highway safety” - not to mention the “protection of the environment”.
Nevertheless, a two-year extension of the residents’ right to remain was granted in 2005 - supposedly to allow the council to find a permanent alternative. But, unsurprisingly, Basildon was ‘unable’ - in fact unwilling - to come up with anything. Understandably, “the claimants remained on the land in breach of the enforcement notices and the criminal law”. But, as Justice Collins bluntly stated, “there was nowhere in the district or indeed in the region where they could lawfully reside in their caravans”.
It is an absolute disgrace that the establishment refuses to resolve the “small problem” of allowing travellers access to land - even when they buy it, as at Twin Oaks and Dale Farm. I do not agree with the assertion of Ann Czernik in the Morning Star that “the forced eviction of Dale Farm travellers is the biggest single incident of institutionalised racism in Britain”. But I certainly agree with the sentiment behind what she writes. However, travellers are not in general objected to because of their ethnicity: they are objected to because of their unorthodox lifestyle. The state is reluctant to come to terms with the fact that the nomadic preferences of this oppressed group render them less susceptible to control in a number of ways. It will not willingly accept that they should declare their autonomy and opt out in this way.
It is excellent that dozens of activists have rallied to the cause of Dale Farm residents, helping them to erect the formidable barricade across the site entrance. Of course, the travellers and their supporters would be no match for state forces determined to eject the families by any means, but it will not be so easy for the establishment to swallow the embarrassment and opprobrium caused by the “harm” to children and old people feared by Justice Collins that a violent assault on their homes would inevitably produce.
While I would not discount a forcible eviction, there is no doubt that the government, council and media would prefer to continue their propaganda war against the “criminal” actions of the travellers in attempting to remain in the homes they own. In this way they hope to wear down the residents and that more and more of them will simply leave the site.
The Daily Mail is already crowing that “Dale Farm travellers finally move on (to set up a new illegal site down the road in Luton).” In fact it turns out that a small number of the travellers who turned up at Stockwood Park near Luton on September 20 are from Dale Farm. Others, who had previously moved to the adjacent legal site, have actually gone in the opposite direction and returned to their homes in the illegal section, apparently believing that the council will now see reason in the light of the injunction. As I write, there is talk of the barricade being dismantled as a goodwill gesture.
What is really needed is for the authorities to withdraw their reactionary objections and allow all travellers the right to follow the lifestyle of their choice. Let Dale Farm residents stay in the homes they have built, or, if they prefer, settle on the land offered by the Homes and Communities Agency - in which case they should be given full compensation for the loss of their homes and the continual harassment they have suffered.
- Circular 01/2006 issued by the office of the deputy prime minister.
- Morning Star September 21.