More than 90 Irish Travellers families at Dale Farm in Essex will be made homeless in the next few weeks, after an Appeal Court ruling on Thursday opened the way for the demolition of their homes.
The families had bought the derelict green belt land, part of which had been used as a scrap metal yard, nearly ten years ago. They paid council tax and gradually built semi-permanent homes there. But they did not have planning permission. When they applied, the applications were refused.
Basildon District Council had been trying to evict them for several years. In a High Court judgment last May, see: Judge stops demolition of Essex Travellers site Mr Justice Collins ruled that there should be further investigation into the welfare of the families before they were moved on.
But the Appeal Court has decided that Basildon Council is within its rights to evict the families. On Friday, lawyers acting for the community were waiting for the go-ahead to mount an appeal to the House of Lords. They are also considering an application to the European Court of Human Rights. However, due to the anticipated two-year delay such a move would involve, it is doubtful British judges would grant a stay of execution on Basildon's plan to evict.
Kathleen McCarthy, vice-chair of Dale Farm Housing Association is submitting a joint homeless application on behalf of some 300 related residents. A similar joint application was rejected last year and more than two dozen families were turned down for re-accommodation on the basis that they had intentionally rendered themselves homeless. But this time Basildon District Council has given the Court of Appeal an undertaking to comply with its obligations to the homeless.
Some families are considering camping on fields nearby owned by the community and presently used for grazing horses.
"We can legally camp on this land for up to a month," said community leader Richard Sheridan.
Talks have already been held with the Red Cross, which has donated a large tent for what would initially be a tent city. Some 25 wooden huts, in use at Dale Farm, would be relocated.
The local Catholic church has also offered to provide temporary shelter for mothers, children, the sick and elderly in two church halls. Transport would be provided by the Red Cross and other agencies, including Essex Racial Equality Council.
Julie Morgan MP has endorsed an appeal by the community to the EU Civil Protection agency. This asks the EU to help avert what Morgan is calling a humanitarian disaster.
The UK Children's Commissioner is insisting that Basildon Council spell out what steps it is taking to ensure the safety of children during an eviction and what alternative accommodation is being provided for them.
A team of human rights monitors has been gathered to oversee the eviction. It will be headed by International Romani Union delegate Joseph Jones, who was recently appointed an expert to the UN Advisory Group on Forced Evictions.
Those who have offered their services as monitors include Lord Avebury, Nick Harvey MP and Dr Dimitrina Petrova, director of the Equal Rights Trust.
In the near future meetings will take place with senior police officers and council officials to discuss evacuation of children and sick persons before heavy machinery is brought onto Dale Farm. Strict adherence to health and safety regulations will be insisted upon by community representatives, backed by Essex Fire and Rescue.
The Gypsy Council has documentary evidence that Constant & Co bailiffs, contracted by Basildon for previous evictions, has frequently ignored safety regulations and acted with brutality towards women and children. Caravans have been burned and many personal belongings unnecessarily trashed.
Last May, the Bishop of Brentwood, Bishop Thomas MacMahon, the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford, Bishop John Gladwin and other Catholic and Anglican clergy visited the site for the opening of a cabin to be used as a chapel and community centre. The cabin has now been scheduled for demolition.
Sister Catherine Riley, who has visited the families for several years, said she was very concerned about their future. She said: "The council have not provided any sites for them to move on to. I hate to think what is going to happen when that day comes. They are very low in spirits at the moment. Most of the men are abroad looking for work so the women are frightened because they do not know when the bailiffs will come to destroy their homes."