No-one is illegal - not even in Essex!

IssueJuly to August 2006
Feature by Ippy, Martha Ransdell

If you live in this part of Essex, the “traveller burden”-- as it has been unceremoniously called- is a hot topic. With one of the highest densities of Irish and Gypsy Traveller sites in the country ,some local residents, the local council and MP, and the far right, appear keen to see these communities vanish from their collective radars.

Of course, it would be a crazy ,liberal, rose-tinted view to ignore the fact that, like with all communities, things are not perfect with the travelling community. However, a climate of fear , ignorance and a lack of courage to engage with what is considered a fairly closed community, means the space for developing positive and mutually acceptable solutions for all parties is narrowed to the point where the only proposal on the table is to evict Travellers from their homes--and in the case of Dale Farm, to move them onto another site under the A13 at Pitsea. In a community where every member is related by blood or marriage, this is a devastating prospect, as Tina comments: “We don't want to go to Pitsea, we're frightened to. If it comes down to no other choice, we'll go, but we'd rather stay where we are, because we've been safer here. If we are evicted, it will cut the whole community in half. It will be broken up. It's not good at all.”

Evictions, cash and Constant

Under a Freedom of Information Act request made earlier this year by the local newspaper , Basildon council confirmed that it had already spent #360,000 over the past twelve months on Traveller evictions and related “services.” Of this amount, #213,000 was spent on legal costs for the possible eviction, including planning inquiries,judicial reviews and other hearings.

According to Grattan, the council no longer cares about the money for this particular eviction.”The money isn't an issue, now . We reckon they spent at least #1,000,000 at Woodfield site in Bedfordshire around two years ago. We stopped them once, but they came back. But I don' t think they'll ever vote again for that much money, because there's been a lot of local opposition to them spending that much.”

We turn to the issue of who will gain financially from the proposed #3m eviction--investigation and bailiff firm Constant and Co. The firm has been involved in several high-profile evictions and specialise in dealing with Travellers and squatters.

In May 2006, they posted an item on their website in which they stated that “Our [...] unrivalled experience in the eviction of Travellers gives us a head start on some competitors who are [...]incapable of dealing with resistance when it occurs.” Nice chaps.

In July 2005, Constant carried out a partial eviction of the nearby Hovefield site in which they dam aged adjacent property in defiance of a High Court injunction. The company has built a strong reputation for carrying out forcible evictions across the country which have seen hundreds of yards razed, earth banks built to prevent travellers returning to their land, emergency services denied access to sites, water being cut off and, in one case last year , a trailer being set alight. Travellers have responded to the threat of evictions by building defences, locking-on to their trailers, and other forms of predominantly nonviolent resistance. It is believed that Constant has already been paid #30,000 to produce a blueprint for the Dale Farm eviction.

Planning to stay

There are a lot of yards at Dale Farm--an estimated 1,000 people live here-and most of the them are in fact considered “legal”, in that the land is owned by travellers and there is planning permission for the land to be lived on, which was awarded back in the 1970s. However , as the community grew, it purchased land next to the original site, cleared it and built more yards. It is these yards that the local authority refuses to grant planning permission for. Residents are appealing these decisions on 1 August. Tina says: “This used to be a scrap yard. It was just piled up high with hundreds of old car bodies. All those were cleared out,and then, this was made into a site. The council just doesn't like it. There was never mention of a green belt around here at the time. We cleaned it up. Then, the scrap yard became a green belt.”

According to a May 2006 Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) report, approximately 90 percent of the Gypsy and Irish traveller planning permission applications are rejected. Normally, 80 percent of applications received each year are approved. Because of this lack of permission, many Gypsies and Travellers set up their site without receiving permission, or before they seek permission. However , the CRE also reports that the majority of Gypsies and Irish Travellers abide by the planning laws. Internal displacement When John Prescott was still in office, he proposed an alternative for Dale Farm to be provided at Pitsea, which is on the other side of Basildon. But Basildon council is reportedly already saying that they will in turn refuse this site. It appears as though central government is trying to ensure that Dale Farm is not evicted unless the new site is opened up at Pitsea.

According to Grattan, local MP John Baron, has already been down to Pitsea and collected 3,000 signatures against the proposal. This happened about six months ago, when the site was first proposed: “If we can' t go there, we're out. We're history. They have stirred up so much hatred for us.”

Tina adds “I know that other people have gone through the same things we are going through,but they at least have a place to live. They might get called names and other things, but they have a home to live in. People don't say, “you're black, you can't live here,” and they can't come in with bulldozers, and put them out of their homes. It's a kind of racism. But they'll do it to Gypsies and Travellers because they think we don't know better. But they ran into a bit of trouble here. They thought it would be an easy thing here, but they're seeing that it's not. Pearl adds, “If it does come to eviction, as a last resort, we'll fight back.” Community relations We sit in the trailer with the women and Grattan and, over a cup of coffee, hear more about the legal challenges, life under threat of eviction, relations with the local settled community, and what support they would like to receive from the “outside world”.”On 13 November our judicial review will be heard. We are questioning the decision made by Basildon council to spend nearly#3 million on the [Dale Farm] eviction. We're questioning whether they went through the due process, whether they had due consideration of the family back grounds of everybody , and whether they considered the human rights issues” says Grattan.”They're not considering what impact this eviction may have on community relations.”

Despite the lack of planning permission, residents at Dale Farm say they have tried to pay their council taxes. However , their cheques were returned to them. Pearl comments: “They don' t want us to pay. If we pay, it means we're good to live here. W e were paying all along, and then they sent us back our cheques and won' t take our money any more. If they're sending you bills, it legitimises you living here. I suppose that's a good way of saying, `goodbye'.”

Fear and ignorance

Besides being discriminated against by Basildon Council, many Travellers here also feel that local Basildon residents have strong prejudices and, as a result, treat them unfairly. The 2006 Commission for Racial Equality report states that the local police are”doing nothing to build better community relations”. Among the Special report: Travellers under threat Special report: Travellers under threat Page 8 Peace News 2475-6 July-August 2006 Peace News 2475-6 July-August 2006 Page 9 The official visitor On fire safety We've been working on a safety DVD to go out to travellers nationwide to try to prevent the community dying in fires in their trailers. I've received the support of fire services around the country and been asked to give a presentation to the Chief Fire Officers' Association, which means all the fire officers in this country will hear about the travelling community. We'd like to have the film done by the end of September, then have a debate about it.

On evictions We need a protocol set up to maintain the safety of everybody involved, and to know what the role of the police would be for an eviction. During one eviction the police told me, “We're totally independent, we're just here to keep the peace.” So I turned around and said to them, “Well if you're there only to keep the peace, why don't you keep the peace on the side of the travelling community? How many arrests [of `over-enthusiastic' bailiffs] have you done during an eviction? And he said “none.” There's no balance to it.

I really don't want any evictions to happen. When I look at the persecution that the communities have suffered over hundreds of years, and when I see people treat the Travellers differently in the community because they have an Irish accent, I say to these people, “This type of behaviour happened in South Africa. It happened in the southern states of America. You're going back hundreds and hundreds of years. What do you expect, Travellers to get up and give them your seat on the bus? In this day and age, you might as well put a sign that says “no blacks,” if you're going to do it for Travellers.

On the “greenbelt” People think Travellers should be moved off because this is a greenbelt area - and we can't have travellers in the greenbelt area, if they go against planning, then everyone else can go against planning, and the council will lose control. But we've managed to find some pictures of the site when it was a scrap yard, with bits and pieces everywhere. It wasn't a green belt, though it was in the greenbelt zone, but it wasn't a greenbelt. It was all concrete. It's now a brown belt. And a brown belt can be changed.

Martin Trevillion works for Essex County Fire and Rescue. At the end of June, two intrepid PN reporters visited Britain's largest travellers site at Dale Farm in Essex. Forty of the yards on the site are under threat of eviction - estimated to cost £3m.

Although the residents legally own the land, these forty yards do not have planning permission. We caught up with Grattan Puxon, media officer for the UK Gypsies, Travellers and Roma Forum, who travelled with us to meet Tina, Pearl and other women living in one of the threatened yards. CRE's key findings are several recommendations for local authorities. The CRE calls for the local authority to work proactively to promote good community relations, and to help build integrated communities. Local authorities should also actively tackle mutual misunderstandings and stereotypes, according to the report.

For Dale Farm Travellers, their experience with parents at the local school has done nothing to reassure them about local prejudice. Younger children from Dale Farm go to the nearby Cray's Hill Primary and chair of the Dale Farm Residents Committee Richard Sheridan is a governor at the school, but their attendance has, according to Tina, resulted in parents from the local, settled community withdrawing their children: “It happened very quickly. It happened about two or three years ago, when this end of the site was occupied [the “illegal”end]. Our children are just the very same as the settled community's children, but just because we are Travellers, they didn't want their kids in with our children. It's as simple as that. It's just that people don't know us; it' s ignorance. The schools they go to are very nice, the teachers are great, and they're very pleased with the children. People get frightened, because of what the papers print about us. They have nothing to be frightened of.”

Local support

Perhaps surprisingly, the women seem certain that relations with the local settled community have in fact begun to improve: “When they tried to do the Hovefield eviction, two local woman went down there and got arrested and were in the police station for seven hours, because they tried to stop them from moving a mobile home.”

But the community is keen to engage with other supporters and invite people to sign their petition, join their rallies and provide practical support during evictions (see opposite for details). Deciding that we had better head off on the next leg of our Essex adventure (to Hovefield and then on to nearby road protest site Camp Bling), we ask Tina what message she'd like to send to the wider community. She responds: “They just want Gypsies and Travellers to disappear. Just bang, finish. But that won't happen. We're in the world too long. It goes back generation, after generation. I want something better for my children than travelling the road,living in poverty and want. Get rid of all this prejudice that people are carrying for centuries, don't be racist ... just let us live and let live.”

The settled resident: Ann Kobayashi

I live in Wickford, a small town near Dale Farm. I got to know some of the Travellers as, over the last five or six years, about 150 of them have gradually become part of the local Catholic community. That process hasn't always been easy but it has been interesting as the “settled” parishioners and the Travellers have adapted to sharing a common space for a few hours each week and working through misunderstandings.

A rich culture

At school in Dublin we learned about the Penal Laws, the Famine, absentee landlords, rack rents and the forcible eviction of tenant farming families who had no alternative but to take to the road. Many years later, through visiting friends at Dale Farm, I became aware of the richness of Traveller culture, but also of the disproportionate health and educational problems faced because of lack of regular access to services due to frequent forcible removals. So since last year I have spoken out against the proposed eviction of Dale Farm families.

Protecting human rights

Despite seeing evictions on video it was still shocking to witness one in action. On 28 July 2005 I went to the Hovefield site. I stood with another woman, watching a chalet being attached to a towing vehicle, she said “Shall we sit down?” - as members of a Trident Ploughshares affinity group we have often sat down at sites of outstanding human stupidity. So down we went in front of the chalet, clutching the towing cables and holding up a small hand-made sign - “Protect Human Rights”. Quickly arrested, we were released five hours later without charge .

Taking a stand (or a sit!)

What we did was a short-lived, symbolic gesture, but on reading the local press reports even people who don't approve of me or of nonviolent direct action thought the police action wholly disproportionate. I'll continue to stand beside the Traveller community as long as they want me ... and sometimes even sit down!