Dale Farm Travellers eviction: the battle of Basildon
Local councils say they can no longer afford to provide sites for Travellers – and now the evictions are about to begin.
25/03/2011 - As the rain fills the potholes in the rough track outside, Mary McCarthy sits beneath a towering vase of burgundy and cream artificial roses and gestures around her immaculate living room. "This might look like a house to you but it's a chalet. It can be broken down into two pieces and moved."
Broken down and moved is the fate that awaits McCarthy and 86 Traveller families who have made a secluded field in the Essex countryside their home for the past decade. This month Basildon council voted to devote up to £8m, one third of its annual budget, to evict the families of Dale Farm and destroy the community they have created in an old scrap yard on green belt land.
The battle over Dale Farm, one of the largest unauthorised Traveller sites in Europe, shows how Gypsies and Travellers are being pummelled by a perfect storm. The Channel 4 documentary My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding confirmed popular prejudices that Gypsies are wealthy, vulgar freeloaders and spawned a rash of "My big fat Gypsy . . ." headlines. Public sector cuts are hitting Traveller education services while squeezed budgets mean local authorities are even less willing to provide sites for Gypsies. Temporary planning permissions, issued to many Travellers five years ago by councils desperate to make controversial caravan sites disappear, are expiring. This year, temporary permissions for 50 Gypsy families will run out in South Cambridgeshire alone – leaving Travellers mired in an expensive and chronically insecure planning tangle. And now, most alarmingly of all for Travellers, councils are evicting them to a clamour of supportive comments from David Cameron and Eric Pickles , the Conservative local government secretary – who is fast turning his personal track record of vehement opposition to unauthorised Traveller sites into government policy.
When McCarthy and her relatives pulled up at Dale Farm 10 years ago it appeared an ideal solution to the problem of life on the road. McCarthy, a great-grandmother, remembered the scrap yard from her travelling days because it was a rare place where they could pull up and get water. Adjacent to the busy dual carriageway around Basildon, with pylons overhead and two catteries for neighbours, the scrap yard was far from idyllic. That suited the Travellers: with a large Gypsy site next door where residents had obtained planning permission in the 1970s, they believed they would be left alone. They were wrong. After 10 years of failed planning