Tensions are rising at Dale Farm in Essex - as bailiffs with bulldozers, employed by Basildon Council, prepare an £8million operation to demolish the homes of more than 100 Traveller families. The following article by ICN editor, Jo Siedlecka, (originally published in Shelter's Roof magazine, on 4 November 2008) - gives background information on this story. In the three years since it was written, the Dale Farm community has endured continuous harassment and uncertainty over the future of their homes and a succession of legal efforts to save them have been defeated.
Travellers on a site in rural Essex are under siege from Basildon council, reports Jo Siedlecka
Dale Farm near Wickford, in rural Essex, is one of the largest Gypsy and Traveller sites in Europe. Around 500 people live on the site in caravans, camper trucks and prefab chalets. Some of the plots have little gardens and small shrines. Children’s play facilities are shared between families.
The site, a former scrap metal yard, is overhung by electricity pylons. A makeshift fence of corrugated iron sheets and heaps of tyres separate it from adjacent farmland.
Relations between newcomers on the site and the rest of the community have deteriorated over the years. When the first Travellers arrived 10 years ago and bought the land, they obtained planning permission for 12 permanent residences and settled in quietly. However, when a large influx of families followed, John Baron, Conservative MP for Billericay, the local paper and the Daily Mail began a campaign aimed at their eviction.
In 2004, when around 50 Traveller children arrived at the small village primary school in Crays Hill, population 2,000, other parents withdrew their children en-masse and the head teacher, staff and board of governors all resigned. The school, with its new pupils and staff has since had a very good Ofsted report.
Basildon district council has been trying to evict the families for years. Last December, the council decided to use section 178 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to enter the land, evict the residents and demolish their dwellings. This would have left them homeless, as the council would not have been able to offer alternative accommodation.
Earlier this year, a group of more than 50 Traveller families were granted a reprieve in the High Court. In his 26-page judgment, Mr Justice Collins said the eviction order could not stand and he ordered more time to investigate concerns about the families’ welfare. Judge Collins said sick and vulnerable persons and children attending school had not been given proper consideration, nor had anti-racist legislation been fully complied with.
The judge warned the Travellers that they would not be able to stay on the illegal sites permanently, but said: "I think that the approach has been that the sites should be cleared, rather than a consideration of whether there are families whose circumstances are such eviction would be disproportionate."
In his ruling, Judge Collins was particularly critical of Basildon council’s bailiffs, Constant & Co. After watching footage of a Traveller eviction it carried out in Hertfordshire, he said: "The conduct was unacceptable and the evictions were carried out in a fashion which inevitably would have led to harm to those affected.
"The council must reconsider the use of the firm and ensure that any eviction is carried out in as humane a fashion as possible."
Judge Collins gave Basildon permission to appeal against his decision, saying the case raised ‘important points’ over what appeared to be the ‘insoluble problem’ of providing sites for Gypsies and Travellers.
Traveller spokesman Grattan Puxon said the ruling "represents a major legal victory for Britain’s long harassed gypsies and travellers, many of whom have seen their homes mercilessly bulldozed".
Dr Keith Lomax, the solicitor representing the travellers, said: "This is a wake-up call to councils. Those that don’t provide legal living space will find they can’t rely on enforcement powers."
Ray McKay, spokesman for Basildon council told ROOF: "The Travellers at Dale Farm are in breach of planning law. We want them to go. They have used all manner of legal procedures to delay matters, but we are committed to moving them on. There are legal residents on the site, but the rest have to go."
He added: ‘Basildon has one of the largest number of sites for travellers in the country, about 103 sites. Perhaps other councils could also offer more provision.’
He concluded: "They would get more sympathy if they were poor. But they are not. They alienate communities. They don’t integrate. It’s their choice. In the end we all have to follow the law. They are not our responsibility."
While at odds with many, the Travellers have the strong support of the local churches and some neighbours. The Bishops of Brentwood, Chelmsford, and other Catholic and Anglican clergy have all visited Dale Farm.
A small cabin intended for meetings, health projects, IT and literacy classes, was officially opened on the site with the blessing of the local Catholic parish priest, Father John Glynn of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Wickford. There were speeches by Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury, Clive Mardner, director of the Equality Council, who sponsored the project, and Richard Sheridan, the National Gypsy Council president.
Lord Avebury said: "The bulldozing of Dale Farm would be a disaster."
Sheridan said: "If we are evicted it will be a traumatic experience for all the families who have nowhere to go."
Commenting on the court decision, Father John said: "This judgment is a welcome stay of execution. The great thing is that it draws attention to the situation of these individual families. I hope this will now lead to a proper dialogue between all the parties."He added that local churches, have offered to help bring the sides together for talks.
Low life expectancy
One of the main supporters of the travellers is Sister Catherine Reily, a Catholic nun and social worker who has been visiting the community for eight years. She said: "Irish Travellers are one of the smallest ethnic groups in the UK. At any one time, more than 20 per cent are homeless. Most are unable to read or write. Their life expectancy is 20 years lower than the national average."
She said: "They find it hard being in a house or flat. Those who do settle say they miss the sounds of the birds and wind and rain on the roof."
A stay in hospital makes them unhappy. Sister Catherine said one young girl, who had cystic fibrosis and eventually died, would regularly vanish from her hospital bed at night and then reappear in it the next morning. She said: "I’m sure the family were taking her home."
Sister Catherine said: "Travellers in rural areas are often the target of abuse and blamed for everything from fly-tipping to petty crime. Some do misbehave, but the majority are law-abiding.
"If they had more official transit sites they’d be no trouble at all, but councils have sold off many of their old sites.
Travellers are shy of doctors and social workers, she said, and often the caring professions are nervous of them as well. "A few months ago there was an outbreak of meningitis. The doctor wouldn’t visit unless I went with her. The children miss out on vaccinations and healthcare.
"If they had some education it would help them get work and integrate better. But many families have to move every few days. The children don’t get a chance to stay in school for long."
Just one Travellers’ site in England has permanent nursery, health and training facilities: The Westway, an old site underneath a motorway flyover in West London. The services were set up by Westminster council with the Catholic Children’s Society. The children all attend local schools.
"I would like to see more facilities like that around the country," Sister Catherine said. "Generally Travellers get very rough treatment from the authorities. Here at night police helicopters sometimes fly low over the site, making a rattling noise through the camp.
"It reminds me of the way the South African regime treated people in the black townships during the days of apartheid."
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