The big fat messy saga of Dale Farm

The Dale Farm saga has the power, it seems, to invoke passions as few other recent events. It has unleashed streams of vitriol on Twitter and in the blogosphere and a glut of contradicting information and claims. As well as the main protagonists, the Dale Farm residents and Basildon Council, a range of other supporting players have emerged to underline this isn’t just a legal, but a moral debate.

Those questioning the eviction range from the bishops of Chelmsford and Brentwood, to Amnesty International to actress and campaigner Vanessa Redgrave.  Joining these calls, the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on the government to suspend the evictions and called for dialogue.  The government, apparently, blocked their offer to help negotiate and has instead pledged £4.5 million towards the cost of the eviction.

I fear that those who don’t see the significant human rights questions raised by Dale Farm are inclined to see the world very much in black and white.  Their argument, and I’ll confess for a while it was my argument, is that this is simply about law enforcement and that if  Travellers want to live in this country they should abide by our laws, all of them, just as the rest of us have to.

The problem with this is that Travellers aren’t being treated equally before those laws.  Any one of us who has ever tried to get planning permission for anything knows that planning law, or at least the enforcement of it, seems to be littered with inconsistencies and bizarre requirements, which can drive even the most tenacious applicant insane.  But for this community it is particularly mercurial, with more than 90% of their planning applications being initially rejected, compared to 20% overall.

From a planning perspective, the situation for Travellers is only going to get worse.  The Localism Bill will do away with the central targets obliging councils to provide sites.  Instead they will assess local need themselves and local communities will have more power over planning decisions, which you can be sure is unlikely to help Travellers find places to live.

This raises the question of whether the rule of law trumps other considerations, such as whether the Travellers’ basic human rights to housing and property are being infringed.  There is also a startling contradiction between Basildon council’s enforcement of planning law and the failure of councils generally to meet their legal obligation to provide Traveller sites.  For example, a letter in the Guardian states that two neighbouring councils, Castle Point and Rochford, have made it very clear they will not be providing any sites.

This hypocrisy is compounded when officialdom is quite happy to spend millions evicting travellers but seems unwilling to do anything about wealthy businessmen or corporations accused of not paying taxes.  If citizens can’t pick and choose which laws to obey, it doesn’t seem very sensible for officials to be able pick and choose which laws to enforce. In these dark financial times it surely makes more sense to pursue white-collar criminals defrauding the taxpayer of billions, than to spend money on evicting Travellers, which will just shunt the ‘problem’ somewhere else.

The most troubling aspect of all this is the prejudice bubbling all too noticeably just beneath the surface.  It seems quite acceptable for people to describe Travellers as ‘dirty’, ‘antisocial’, ‘criminals’, ‘scum’ and much worse besides.  I bet most of those throwing these phrases around have never had anything to do with the community and base their judgement on what they read in the hate-filled right wing press and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (hey, it was a TV programme!!).

The council insists the clearance is ‘absolutely nothing’ to do with the Travellers’ ‘choice of lifestyle or background’ and that it has spent the last ten years trying to find a peaceful solution.  But one report suggests it has bungled the whole affair and it could have been less costly and confrontational if the council had applied for an injunction requiring residents to leave the site.  It is ironic that it was the residents who got the injunction in the end, preventing the clearance until the case is heard in the High Court.

This hearing will eventually draw a line under the legality of the settlement and the attempted clearance.  But it is unlikely to do much to deal with the unsettling racism swirling around the issue.  It does seem as if Travellers and Gypsies are the last acceptable targets of racist hate in this country to the extent that  a number of Jewish solidarity groups support their cause.

If you need to be convinced, just take a look at the site that replaces the wordy ‘Gypsy’ in negative news headlines with the word ‘Jew’.  And if I could have a pound for every time I’ve heard ‘but they don’t travel’ I would be able to have a good night out, even if it was only in Pizza Express and not the Fat Duck.  I am sure quite a few Travellers would love to travel, but there just aren’t enough legal pitches.

I suppose the ultimate question is whether I would be prepared to have a legal pitch set up at the back of my house or in my neighbourhood.  If I’m totally honest, I would probably say ‘no’, but at least I’m prepared to accept my view is informed by the clear prejudice of media reports.  However, I am baffled by the objections of the residents near Dale Farm.  Half of the site is legal, so even if the eviction goes ahead there will still be a substantial community of Travellers on their doorstep.

Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of Dale Farm, I can’t help thinking that Basildon council have totally overreacted.  I am not sure what it solves forcibly evicting this community from their homes, pitched illegally, yes, but on land they own and adjacent to a legal site.  I can’t see how breaking up a community that has put down roots is a sensible solution, particularly when it takes so many children out of school, putting the future of the school at risk.  On the balance of evidence as I see it, Dale Farm should be left in peace.

Posted in: Rule of Law

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