Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/12885
The battle for Dale Farm and Travellers' rights
Dave Murray and Helen Ridett
The attempt by the local council to forcibly evict Travellers from their land at Dale Farm in Essex has highlighted the issue of Gypsies' and Travellers' rights in the UK.
International human rights organisations have condemned Basildon council's actions, but both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have come out in favour of the forced removal of 86 families from homes they have occupied for the last 10 years.
What position should the labour movement and socialists take? Basildon council is spending a lot of money - £18 million - to 'clean up' a few acres of ground at Dale Farm.
Yet, when the money has been spent and the army of bailiffs, security guards and police officers has gone home, the media centre has been dismantled and the temporary road onto the site (specially laid for the evictions) taken up again, they intend to leave behind a moonscape of shattered concrete and smashed roadways.
Evicted families who cannot find alternative pitches for their homes will have them confiscated (the council intends to put them into storage at exorbitant rates - in other eviction cases homes have been destroyed).
They will then be invited to apply as homeless people to the local housing department, at a stroke doubling the annual number of homeless applications in the district.
Inevitably, given the shortage of authorised pitches, there will be another 'Dale Farm' somewhere down the road for those who do not take up this 'generous' offer.
Those that do will take their place among 60,000 households who are officially homeless in England, a figure which is actually a fraction of those in housing need.
Farm? What farm?
The disputed land is right next to an authorised Traveller site of some 50 pitches, just north of the A127, a trunk road which divides the more affluent parts of the district from the New Town of Basildon.
It is a low-lying, secluded piece of ground - you could be within a quarter mile of it and not know it was there - and its immediate neighbours are a farm and a small number of detached houses in their own substantial grounds.
From the late 1960s until 2000, the land was used to store and break up motor vehicles. According to the previous owner, Ray Bocking, the council itself dumped tonnes of hardcore on the site so that it could be used to store the abandoned vehicles that it was obliged to tow away.
The land was bought, cleaned up and put to use by Travellers in 2001 as pressure on existing sites grew following changes to the law in the tail end of the John Major government.
As well as changing the law of trespass, the government struck out the legal duty that councils had to provide an appropriate number of pitches for Travellers in their district.
Nationally, with the number of council pitches shrinking, Travellers and Gypsies found that 90% of their planning applications to develop private sites were being denied.
In its report on forced evictions in 2004, a UN advisory group noted that some families had been evicted 50 times in a single year in the UK.
This is the background against which the 'largest illegal gypsy camp in Europe' (as the tabloids call it) came into being. It was an attempt to find a solution to a problem.
Scale of evictions
The Dale Farm evictions are merely the ugly tip of a large and dirty iceberg. Local authorities in Britain are required to identify how many pitches are needed for Gypsies and Travellers in their area.
They are also required to keep track of how many are available. They are not required to do anything about any shortfall.
In recent years Leeds City council alone has spent £3-4 million per year on evictions of Travellers and associated costs (dispatches, C4, 20/9/11).
This was in spite of the fact that there was a clear shortfall in the number of pitches available in the area.
The cost of providing sufficient pitches was found to be £1.5 million - a course of action that the council was forced to take only when the courts refused to grant any more eviction orders.
The Dispatches team spoke to a family that had been evicted 70 times in one year. Nationally there is a shortfall of 6,000 pitches, according to planning consultant Matthew Green, interviewed in the same programme.
Instead of meeting the needs of Travellers and Gypsies, councils have created a multi-million pound industry devoted to moving them on down the road.
"But you don't know what they're like..."
Where Travellers are forced to use insecure, temporary and 'illegal' stopping places, such as parks, nature reserves, recreation areas, green spaces within residential areas, car parks and roadside verges, there are legitimate concerns about the impact on the environment and quality of life for nearby residents.
However, we should not confuse cause and effect. Living without basic services such as refuse collection, water and other utilities and under the constant threat of eviction, it is understandable that leaving the place neat and tidy is difficult.
To focus on a solution is to come back again to the modest demand of Gypsies' and Travellers' representatives for sufficient suitable, authorised pitches.
Divide and rule
For some, a solution is not what is required. There is a lot of justified resentment in society about a section of the population which has proved itself greedy, amoral, dishonest, averse to paying taxes and hostile to the rest of society - our ruling class.
In a time of crisis for their system it is in the interests of the rich and powerful to redirect this resentment onto convenient scapegoats.
Thus allegations of criminality and anti-social behaviour are used to justify the way that the planning system is stacked against Gypsies and Travellers.
Any person who has committed anti-social criminal deeds - whether a Traveller or anyone else - should be investigated and if necessary put before a jury, but collective punishment is an abuse of power that the working class movement would be mistaken not to oppose.
Instead of fuelling sweeping, all-encompassing allegations, the council should provide resources to enable the Travellers and other residents of the area to regularly meet to democratically discuss any concerns and resolve any issues that need to be addressed.
The use and abuse of planning
The current planning regime has regularly been manipulated by large corporations, wealthy individuals and their political representatives.
According to the Guardian, Tesco has repeatedly used 'Trojan horse' planning applications to increase its stranglehold on the British high street.
Five kilometers down the road from Dale Farm, a Tory council is giving planning permission for a private development of 900 homes on green belt land.
As has been noted in The Socialist, Basildon council is currently in the business of selling off acres of green space in Basildon New Town to pay for its spending on prestigious (ie expensive) Olympic facilities.
The government's 'localism' bill will reform the planning process - but in the wrong direction, freeing councils from 'top down' targets on housing provision, and, naturally, from any targets on provision for Gypsies and Travellers as well as loosening restrictions on commercial development.
Gypsies and Travellers have lived in these islands for centuries. Throughout that time they have faced discrimination and persecution (the penalty for being an 'Egyptian' in Elizabethan England? - death) and yet have maintained a distinct identity and way of life on the margins of society. Under the conditions of the last few decades these margins have shrunk.
The battle for Dale Farm shows that these communities will not quietly disappear for the convenience of Tory councillors and their supporters in the 'stockbroker belt'.
At the time of writing, a combination of legal actions by Travellers' representatives and organised, non-violent direct action has stalled the evictions at Dale Farm and forced the world - and even the British courts - to question what is going on.
Not everyone can go down to Dale Farm and lock themselves on to a concrete block, and it is important that the campaign against the evictions is primarily organised and led by the Travellers themselves - as it has been at Dale Farm.
However, the assistance of brave individuals from 'outside' together with the actions of the Travellers themselves has won valuable time and space for the case to be put for a just settlement.
At this stage it is impossible to say how the Dale Farm situation will play out. On one side is Basildon council, with its £18 million war chest specifically budgeted for the contingency of a long drawn out and contested process of eviction, backed up by the government.
On the other side is a determined group of residents and their supporters, well prepared to resist.
At the time of writing the council's operation is bogged down in a legal quagmire, as the high court found that the council was not entitled to clear the site of many of its physical structures, such as walls, fences and gates, or any of the structures that predate the use of the site as a Travellers' camp.
A number of judicial reviews of the whole eviction process are also likely to prevent the forced evictions from starting.
Nevertheless, the council is intent on burning its way through its £18 million, maintaining a field full of heavy plant and a force of bailiffs and security guards next to the Dale Farm site.
The interests of the working class in this are, simply; Spend the £18 million on something we need, like public housing, not on evicting these Travellers.
Unfortunately the union Unison in the region has maintained a conspicuous silence on this matter - though it will be Unison members who will help pay for the £18 million with their jobs.
As socialists we believe that the working class needs to take control of society and run it in the interests of the overwhelming majority of people - something that the capitalist class has spectacularly failed to do.
Part of this must involve the protection of the rights of minorities such as Gypsies and Travellers. This means opposing the Dale Farm evictions right now.
It also means putting demands on the government to ensure that the proven shortage of suitable pitches is corrected.
In the long term it means taking the land into public ownership and developing a pattern of land use and housing that is not constructed around the interests of the very rich.