"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Dale Farm

I have been reluctant to write about Dale Farm. Not like me at all, usually with an opinion on everything and an open mouth to match, you say. So why have I been silent on this topic?

Firstly, let me say I have no axe to grind about Travellers, Roma, or any individuals who live outside the 'normally accepted' housing 'standards'. I agree that empty houses should provide homes for the homeless rather than be left deteroriating for years accumlating value for greedy individuals who do not need the capital they have expended. But those who move into an empty dwelling whilst the owners are on holiday and whom it takes months to remove via the courts are a completely different case and law breakers to boot. I also agree that local councils should make provisions as the law demands for traveller sites.

I live in the same county as Dale Farm, not near enough to be affected by the inhabitants so please don't accuse me of being a NIMBY. I don't have friends or relatives in the neighbouring villages/towns to Dale Farm and I don't think I know anyone who teaches in the local schools. I have taught in schools where there were traveller children [not from Dale Farm] and I have certificates to say that I have undertaken and passed the relevant Traveller awareness courses.

I abhor any form of discrimination: be it on the grounds of ethnicity; religion; social culture; gender choices; educational attainments; political leanings. I have marched and lobbied for civil rights. Yet this situation has seen me until this week quite silent on the issue, although reading and watching much of the media coverage. Clever manipulation by the latter of fact on both sides has made me feel - for once - that whatever I say could so easily be misrepresented that I really have hung back. I have read and heard politicians across party lines saying and doing things with which I agree and disagree, celebrities who seem to know little of the real facts making rather silly statements and others making really cogent comments. I have seen organisations I respect and to which I belong drawing what I consider most odd conclusions. I totally abhor the amount of money [estimated at £18million] which it is going to cost to carry out the process of the law by evicting the Dale Farm Travellers from the illegal site] but surely cost along should not stop the process? Sadly that has never been an argument accepted for the country not going to war.....

But a few days ago, at a family get together, relatives asked me what my views on the Dale Farm situation are. One [from a distance away from Essex] paid me a compliment by saying that he thought I would give an unbiased point of view and why didn't I write about it. So here goes:

The Travellers at Dale Farm, Crays Hill, Essex and Basildon Council have been in dispute for ten years. If one wants to trace the history there are numerous hits if one googles: lots of press articles, questions in the House of Commons and the European Parliament, blog entries [there is a blog in support of the travellers which also contains lots of links] These hits give both sides of the argument and it must be difficult for those not living in the area to make up their minds who is in the right. A support camp, Camp Constant, has been set up adjacent to Dale Farm to disseminate press reports and gather supporters from all over the UK and Europe in the hope of preventing the eviction of the Travellers from the illegal part of the Dale Farm Travellers site on the 19th of September.

And that's the rub: 'The illegal part of the site'. The whole of the Dale Farm site was bought a long time back by Travellers. Part of it [the 'legal site'] had planning permission for the around 40 dwellings that are there. Although some of the neighbouring villagers were against this that was just one of those things - they could equally have ended up with a factory or something else they didn't like next door. Someone always complains about something.

And so it might have ended there. Until a further 80+ dwellings moved onto the part of the farm that did not have planning permission and which is classified as green belt [the 'illegal site'] In itself,developing a site without planning permission is a not uncommon story and many of us will have read about similar council actions against individuals, maybe just extending their property without permission, in our local press. But this story is a bit bigger than that. The illegal part of Dale Farm has far more inhabitants that the original, legal part and has had quite devastating effects on the neighbouring village. National press have often cited how property values have dropped in the neighbourhood, and this may seem somewhat mercenary to an outsider but to those living there it is devastating and it is not the only effect. Village life has changed considerably, whereas early on in the history of this dispute villagers were happy to talk to the press and media about the problems Dale Farm was causing, by the time that the BBC 9 o'clock news was reporting earlier in the summer on the situation, the residents of the village were refusing to be interviewed for fear of reprisals. Yet this has been reported in the National Press as 'apart from one man, no villagers have any complaints'. Local press has a list of complaints in their 'comments' common under pseudonyms - but these range from the extremely reasonabe to downright malicious and as full of hatred as the threats of violence by individual travellers referred to above.

The inhabitants of Dale Farm have also become nationwide media heroes and heroines by their appearances in 'Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' and the documentaries made about the problems at the site between the Travellers and the council, aired earlier this year. Thus many people country wide feel some sort of ownership of the problems here in Essex.

Accusations and cross accusations have flown backwards and forwards for the past too many years. The Travellers have accused the council of attempting 'Ethnic Cleansing'in their eviction proposals [The Irish Traveller community is designated an Ethnic Grouping by the European Parliament] Yet if the council were trying to stop any illegal development by a non-ethnic minority community, would it have received a second glance? Individual Travellers have threatened violence if the eviction is carried out and of course the media has jumped on these threats. These individuals do not help the claims of their larger community. Claims of non-payment of Council Tax and other bills have been bandied about regarding the Travellers. Eventually no-one knows which side to believe.

Meanwhile solid facts have emerged, many of the Travellers do own properties and sites in other parts of the UK and Ireland. Basildon Council may have turned down reasonable offers to come to some agreement. Latest news today is that Basildon Council are preparing accomodation for any travellers who have nowhere to go on eviction. Some travellers have already left the illegal part of the site in the last few days. Basildon Council have repeatedly offered alternative accomodation to those Travellers who do not have alternative sites, but - perhaps understandably - the Travellers say that they do not want to live in bricks and mortar and want to keep up their own cultural mores. But it still remains that where they are living now is in an illegal site that does not have planning permission and that if the eviction is carried out the Travellers will not be homeless.

I have tried to present an unbiased 'guide' to the way the 'situation' has arisen at Dale Farm. I do sympathise with any small community trying to retain its cultural background and traditions. However, when moving and living within another community's mores it is not always possible to exclude one's own, smaller community from the larger community. If some of the benefits of the larger community, like schools and hospitals are enjoyed, surely it is necessary to also obey its rules, like the planning laws?

I still really hope for a peaceful solution and dread any violent confrontation next week. Children around the country are the real losers - children at Dale Farm are growing up to regard themselves as 'others' and children outside Dale Farm will also regard those children as 'others' due to the intense media interest. We need integration not segregation. If only we could all live peaceably together.

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