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Column: The Dale Farm circus is the last thing Travellers need

Travellers are getting plenty of media attention at the moment – and it doesn’t help the families who’ll be splintered by evictions, writes Ben Archibald of Pavee Point.

Ben Archibald

THE CURRENT IMPASSE in Essex, where the fate of the largest Traveller camp in the UK has bounced from court date to injunction date towards a now apparently imminent inevitable and messy eviction has generated more column inches this past month than all the England rugby team off-pitch adventures put together.

Dale Farm, a piece of land in a green belt, owned by Travellers and then settled without planning permission by them, is approaching the end of a decade-long dispute with the local authority in Basildon – the council wants to evict the site, and has the backing of the Minister for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, who has garnered up to £10million in policing support for the apparently inevitable attendant trouble.

Scores of activists have converged on the site to offer their solidarity to the Travellers – chaining themselves to fences, building walls and promising to stay till the bitter end, come what may. Back in London’s High Court, judgment after judgment has been issued on the technicalities of the eviction. Judges consistently assert the eviction is legal, if not being planned entirely lawfully by Basildon local authority. A number of innovative judicial reviews were heard last week, along with one spirited attempt to have the scaffolding gate tower listed as a monument to the struggle.

Such are the highlights of Traveller life in England today. After My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which caused enormous damage to the self esteem of the community, books featuring Traveller stories – as imagined by non-Traveller authors, of course, have begun to trend in the bestseller lists. Arguably, there has never been more media around the Traveller community, though it’s hard to argue the old lie that all publicity is good publicity. More and more, Travellers are beginning to prefer the idea that ‘no news is good news’.

In Essex, the local authority prefers to spend millions of taxpayers’ money to make scores of Travellers homeless, rather than affirm the rights of the Travellers to stay in the place where they’ve lived for ten years. In breaking up the community, the right to attend local schools and to practice the community’s tradition of closeness to the extended family will be lost to them, in another systematic denial of the Travellers’ identity.

‘It’s unlawful to live at the side of the road’

It would of course have been better if the community there had followed the planning regulations – but at the time, apparently nobody thought converting a scrap yard to a dwelling space for Travellers at no cost to the tax payer would cause too much of a problem. It undoubtedly appeared to be a cheaper and faster option than seeking the provision of accommodation from the local authority. The local authority disagreed, invoking its responsibility to protect the green belt land around Basildon.

Where can the Travellers on site go? The local authorities surrounding Basildon say they will not build more accommodation. It’s unlawful to live at the side of the road. The reality is that the families will be cast to the winds if they’re evicted, splitting up their families and disrupting their lives.

Back in 2006, then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott gave the Travellers a reprieve and offered alternative accommodation at Pitsea on the other side of Basildon. In the end it came to nothing, and the families remained in the site, then beginning to be surrounded by defensive gates and scaffolding fences. Today, Eric Pickles and council leader Tony Ball are today in no mood to make alternative arrangements – the council is doggedly pursuing a legal route with the end goal of evicting the community on the site.

There is no doubt that some observers see a form of ethnic cleansing going on at Dale Farm – the authority’s dogged determination to spend millions to make Travellers homeless in a recession does seem eerily close to the kinds of concerns anti-racist organisations had about the onslaught of the economic crisis. Basildon Council argue that it is no such thing – a breach of the planning organisations is being rectified, they say.

Seasoned observers of the flux in relations between government and Travellers in the UK do seem, however, to detect much in the political timing of this final reckoning. All we can realistically hope for now is both sides to show restraint in the final chapter – for Basildon council to come to its senses would appear too much to hope.

Ben Archibald is the information co-ordinator for Pavee Point, an organisation promoting Travellers’ human rights.

Read more: Dale Farm travellers win latest legal battle at the UK High Court>

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Ben Archibald

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