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Dale Farm: The human cost of prejudice

As the displaced residents of Dale Farm in Essex face another round of forced evictions, Elly Robson talks to some of the families and examines the discrimination they face

March 3, 2012
5 min read

Photo: Mary Turner

The storming of Dale Farm by hundreds of riot police at dawn on 19 October 2011 was the money shot that the press had been waiting for following weeks of legal proceedings; the next day they all went home. But three months down the line, the eviction continues for the Dale Farm community, unreported. Their former home has been systematically destroyed by Constant & Co. bailiffs, who have transformed this once vibrant and close-knit community into a sewage-filled bombsite. With nowhere else to go, the vast majority of the displaced Travellers now live on the private road (owned by them) leading to Dale Farm and on their friends’ plots on the neighbouring Oak Lane site. Living in overcrowded conditions, they lack adequate access to water and toilet facilities, the only electricity supply is through noisy and expensive generators, and many of the young children and elderly people are ill. It is an unreported refugee camp, just thirty minutes away from London.

Arriving at the site last week, we were greeted by an elderly man who looked up at the remnants of the children’s rope swings hanging from the trees and said ‘What is there to live for? What hope do we have? My wife and I have talked seriously about ending it all. This is no way to live.’ While the trauma of the eviction is still vivid for the residents, it is what happens next that worries them most of all. Kathleen, an articulate five-year-old with an acute awareness of the challenges facing her community, explained the situation to me: ‘Basildon Council and the police came and they broke everything. They broke the walls, and my granny’s caravan, and they broke all the ground, and even my mum’s back [Kathleen’s mother was hospitalised with a fractured spine during the policing operation]. We were crying and we were so scared. Now, Basildon Council want to move us again, but they can’t put us out on the road because where can we go?’

It is this last question that remains unanswered for the Dale Farm residents. Contrary to reports that the Dale Farm Travellers owned property in Ireland, the 83 families who lived at Dale Farm are now homeless. Long before the eviction, the Travellers said they would willingly leave Dale Farm if culturally appropriate alternative housing was provided, but Basildon Council have refused to acknowledge any duty to provide solutions for the community they evicted from their homes. Instead, they are pouring their resources into preparing a new set of enforcement notices, expected to be issued in the next few weeks, which will force the community out of Dale Farm and into car parks and lay bys. The children, who are the first literate generation of Dale Farm Travellers and have continued to attend school throughout the upheaval, will be uprooted from both their education and their community. Conditions at Dale Farm are dismal, but life on the road will involve endless evictions. As Mary Flynn put it, ‘No one would ever stay here if they had a choice, some place else to go. But if they evict us again, we’ll be on the road to nowhere’.

The situation at Dale Farm is not just a product of local tensions, but is symptomatic of the wider problems facing the travelling community. There is a shocking deficit of Traveller sites in the UK: 20% of the caravan-dwelling Gypsy and Irish Traveller community do not have a legal or secure place to live. In the mid-1990s, Travellers were encouraged by central government to buy their own land and settle.[1] However, planning permission is rarely granted to Traveller communities; according to the Commission for Racial Equality, more than 90% of Travellers planning applications are initially rejected, compared to 20% on average.[2] The double standards of planning applications can be witnessed in Basildon, where the Council have recently authorised a dogs’ home on the same ‘protected’ greenbelt on which Dale Farm is located.[3] In this context, Council leader Tony Ball’s maxim that ‘the [planning] law must be upheld’ begins to appear rather hollow. Indeed, while the government have recently injected some much needed cash into the provision of Traveller sites, they have simultaneously removed the duty of local councils to provide sites, increased powers to evict ‘illegal’ encampments and undermined the ability of travelling communities to challenge eviction.[4] The Dale Farm Travellers, like many others belonging to this marginalised community, are stuck between a rock and a hard place as their traditional way of life is criminalised; they cannot travel, they cannot buy their own land and settle, and local councils like Basildon are offering them no alternatives. As Basildon Council issues statistics claiming that, at a cost of over £7 million, the eviction of this community came cheap, urgent questions need to be asked about the immense human cost of institutionalised prejudice.

The Traveller Solidarity Network is organising a national speaker tour about Dale Farm throughout the month of March. Find out when it is coming to your town here: http://travellersolidarity.org/traveller-solidarity-tour/

[1] Department for Communities and Local Government, Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures (Department for Communities and Local Government, March 2004).

[2] Sarah Cemlyn et al, Inequalities experienced by Gypsy and Traveller communities: A review (Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009), p. 8

[3] Basildon Borough Council, PLANNING APPLICATION NO. 11/00433/FULL (Basildon Borough Council, December 2011): http://www.basildonmeetings.info/ieDecisionDetails.aspx?AIId=26527.

[4] Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, Submission to Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into the abolition of regional spatial strategies, (Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, September 2010). Lord Avebury, Legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill (Hansard, 24 January 2012), c. 928-941.