Gypsies living in Thurrock, Essex are fighting against eviction and harassment by local residents.
The Gypsies, members of the West, Birch and Newland families, have been living on a site in Grays, Essex, for the past eight months. They say that their lives have been made increasingly difficult by harassment from local residents, compounded by the attitude of the local authority and the local press. Despite the fact that the site has been occupied since the 1950s, the council recently refused a planning application. The families have been ordered to vacate the site by 11 November 2013 or face eviction. They have three months from that date to leave, but are fighting the decision and are planning to take legal action to appeal it.
Speaking to IRR News, the West family said that they had purchased the land from a friend and have owned the plot for over ten years. Some years ago other members of the Travelling community had lived there, but in 2005 temporary planning permission ran out and the site was vacated. After urgently needing to move from their previous address eight months ago, the Wests moved onto the site and applied again for planning permission to live there.
When the families submitted their application, trouble started. Local residents began campaigning against the families’ presence, lobbying their ward councillors to take action. Meanwhile, the council’s stance on the planning application has been granted generous coverage in the Thurrock Gazette. All this has resulted in hundreds of letters of objection to the plans sent to the council (some from residents of Basildon, some eight miles away). There was a precedent earlier this year when Thurrock Council put out a statement after Tory opposition councillor Mark Coxshall referred to a site as ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Cesspit’. Thurrock Council said that the views of Coxshall in no way represented those of the local authority.
When describing their reasons in public – in the local press, for example – the objectors are careful to state that they simply oppose development on greenbelt land, and that such land should be protected. Yet the families report having experienced abuse and harassment which suggests that mere preservation of the greenbelt is not the sole motive. They have, for example, suffered racist abuse from local residents face to face and comments have been posted on the council’s website (these have since been removed). The police are now investigating these incidents.
The last straw, according to the family, happened on 28 October 2013. After an eight month battle to have water supplies connected – so drawn out, say the families, because the companies had been wrongly told that the land was squatted – a water company agreed to connect the site to its supply, after the local authority’s Traveller liaison officer had spoken on the families’ behalf. When the company arrived, local people obstructed the water company from connecting the family to its supply, forming a roadblock so that the company’s staff could not get near the site.
This is not the first time residents have taken aggressive action to prevent the family from accessing vital resources – earlier in the year when the occupants attempted to have the site connected to an electricity supply, one local attempted to physically obstruct the digging equipment by lying in front of it.
IRR News approached Thurrock Council for a response to the allegations: ‘Our standard practice is to redact inflammatory comments from any letters of representation before being uploaded to the planning portal on the council’s website. Some letters regarding this application had already been redacted. Immediately following concerns raised by the applicants. the council’s Information Management team reviewed the letters posted online and found two letters that needed further redaction.’
- This article was amended on 14 November 2013.
Read an IRR News story – ‘Localism, populism and the fight against sites‘
Sign a petition asking for an apology from The Spectator for Rod Liddle’s article about Travellers