Who’s afraid of the Dale Farm Travellers?

The only crime committed by this community is that it dared to resolve the housing shortage for itself.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Last Saturday, 200 supporters joined the Travellers of Dale Farm in Essex on a demonstration through Wickford and Crays Hill, north of Basildon in south-east England. The Dale Farm residents are threatened with eviction by Basildon Council next week, despite the fact that the Dale Farm site is owned by the Travellers and half is developed with planning permission.

The residents of Dale Farm were told by the council to live there in the mid-1990s. But 10 years ago, the council started refusing to give the residents planning permission for the other half they own. Dale Farm has grown, and some of the people living near the site were angry enough to lobby the council to throw them off.

The site now has several hundred people living on it. Some live in caravans, others have built bungalows, access roads with mains electricity, water, and drainage, especially on the planning-approved half of the site. In the other half of the site, the decade-long threat of eviction discouraged many from spending their money on construction work. It is for the most part a self-governing, self-supporting community; the residents are churchgoing, and glad to be settled long enough for the children to go to school.

The Travellers are made up of many families and they work around Essex, in a range of jobs or are self employed. Some of the Travellers came from Ireland years ago, but many were born not only in Britain, but in Basildon itself. Some are reality TV stars of Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or, more seriously, of Richard Parry’s recent documentaries on the eviction threat, Gypsy Wars and The Big Gypsy Eviction. Many have lived lives of continually being moved on and harassed.

Basildon Council says that the eviction must go ahead because the land is part of the sacred Green Belt of Britain’s protected countryside. More than 60 per cent of the Basildon Council area, and about 13 per cent of England, is Green Belt. More of the UK’s land area is designated as protected under Green Belt laws than is actually occupied by people (six per cent).

The Travellers own the land, but they have been refused planning permission because the council insists the land is part of the Green Belt. But the area designated as Green Belt is just something that the local planning authority makes up as it goes along. Since the end of the 1970s, the area of England’s Green Belt has doubled and, even as late as 2006, the government was being told by Basildon Council that more of its land was to be counted as Green Belt. Before it was a site for Travellers, Dale Farm was not an open field, but a scrapyard, used by the council.

Dale Farm residents protest against the eviction notice.

As Basildon Council designates more and more land as Green Belt, it blocks development, and can choose to renegotiate the release of Green Belt sites in exchange for a share of the development profits. The council would not negotiate with the Travellers who just wanted to stay put. Instead the council will stop the Travellers moving on to another site if and when they are evicted. They will claim, too, that any other site is Green Belt, so that the Travellers have nowhere to live.

The people of Wickford, watching the demonstration as it wandered through the town, had mixed opinions. Some gave support, some recorded the event on their mobile phones, while most just watched in bemusement, not greatly moved. Some of the Irish Traveller women did a good job of going up to the locals, trying to make contact, but it is a weakness of the Dale Farm campaign that it has not garnered more support from the people of Basildon, Billericay and Wickford, the three main towns in the Basildon Council area. The banner of the Southern Eastern Region of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was on the march, but its members were not. A bystander told me that ‘it would have been better if the council had nipped it in the bud 10 years ago’, but, like many, he does not like the conflict or the idea that the outside world thinks the locals are bullies.

The protesters are, like me, moved by the wrongheadedness of the eviction. They are lively and big-hearted. The fashion sense is all a bit faux gypsy, untidy hair and floral prints, and there are a band of drummers dressed like Dexys Midnight Runners. They certainly cheer the march up, but add to the impression of a circus passing through the town.

In their speeches, the Travellers’ supporters, like Weyman Bennett of Unite Against Fascism, have little to say about the Green Belt or housing. They think the shortcut to the moral high ground is to call the evictions ‘racist’. Well, there is some prejudice, no doubt, but it does not really explain why the council has been so determined to push on with the evictions, or why local people have not rallied to their support.

The council hates the Travellers because they have taken control of their own lives and solved their own housing problem. Though they pay their council tax, and their children go to school, the council has little control over their site. Worse still, in the eyes of local jobsworths, Dale Farm is a very closely knit community. The Travellers are quite individualistic, but they are also a collectivity of the kind you do not often find these days – and when they club together to buy land or fight a legal case, they have a lot of clout. These days, administrations are generally used to dealing with supplicant individuals and they exercise authority by playing on people’s insecurities. The authorities have a dread of any kind of ganging together. The council protests that they will rehouse people, but the Travellers do not want to be broken up and handed over to benefits advisers, housing and truant officers; they want to stay together.

The Travellers provoke some jealousy from local people, too. Like everywhere else, there is a real housing shortage, and young people cannot afford to leave home. Basildonians are most angry about the way the Travellers have flouted the planning law and solved their own housing problem. Yet they had no choice but to do so because they met a flat refusal from a fickle local planning authority when they applied for permission to build. But the locals, and particularly the people of Crays Hill nearest to Dale Farm, think that the Travellers have cheated them. They think breaking the planning law has got the Travellers to the front of the housing queue.

The people of Wickford gather ahead
of the Dale Farm anti-eviction march.

Basildonians clearly have a lot of money tied up in their bungalows and their vehicles, and are often angry that the Dale Farm residents got to build their bungalows at a fraction of the cost of housing on the market, freeing up money for the Travellers to spend on their vehicles. Worse, the settled population fears that their house prices will fall down to the value of their unwanted neighbours’ property. The wobble in the housing market since 2008 has no doubt focused resentment from settled locals against the Dale Farm Travellers, who seem to have reserved their ability to move if they have to.

The bad feelings that the council have stirred up against the Travellers are more to do with the failure of housing policy than racism. If Dale Farm had been settled by New Age hippies, or planning law-breaking construction workers, they would be just as angry. The council’s persecution is just a substitute for a real housing policy, and a part of the wider failure of development and planning in Britain. The failure to allow the building of housing increasingly forces more and more people to look for ways around the housing shortage.

Calling the council, and worse still the people of the Basildon area, ‘racist’ makes the Travellers’ supporters feel self-righteous. But it also makes the people of Basildon, Billericay and Wickford, and all the villages in between, more embarrassed and angry about the whole affair. Their sense of resentment is made worse by threats of investigations under the European Convention of Human Rights or by the United Nations. The Travellers’ supporters have prejudices, too – the prejudice that the people of Basildon are knuckle-dragging white racists. Instead of getting the two sides to develop ever-more entrenched positions, the Travellers and the settled Basildonians need to help each other. The do-it-yourself solution of the Dale Farm residents to the housing shortage ought not to be a problem for local people. It should be a great example.

If Basildonians took their own plots of land and developed them, as the Travellers have done, they would feel that they are taking control of their lives. Is that so far-fetched?

Not at all. As we walked from Wickford to Crays Hill, on down Oak Lane to Dale Farm, we passed through the old plotlands that in the 1920s and 1930s allowed Basildon, Billericay and Wickford to be places for the working population of an overcrowded London to move to. That generation migrated and built bungalows which, having been rebuilt over the years, are now valued by the settled Basildonians of today. The Travellers are building bungalows in the same way that previous generations in the Basildon area did, on cheap land. They, too, had a self-reliance, but one that was formally incorporated into the New Town of Basildon.

Clearly Basildon has forgotten it was made by self-reliant people like the Travellers of Dale Farm. Those Travellers are currently the only people showing the rest of us how to resolve the housing shortage that is being sustained by the administrators of Britain’s Green Belt obsession with planning law.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) His most recent book The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909 is published by Hurst and Columbia University Press in October.

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Topics Politics


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