Dale Farm residents’ hopes of an eleventh hour reprieve from eviction have been crushed by the House of Lords’ refusal to hear their appeal – a matter of hours after a spirited meeting in parliament saw the UN pledge its support.
Residents from Dale Farm in Essex, often described as the largest ‘illegal’ Traveller site in Europe, were lobbying the House of Lords, hoping for an eleventh hour intervention. This followed the Court of Appeal ruling on 22 January 2009, which had found in favour of a decision taken by Basildon Council to forcibly remove the families from the land which they partly own, but have not been given planning permission to build on.
Yet the Lords refused permission to hear their appeal, hours after a meeting in parliament hosted by Lord Avebury at which the UN’s Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) endorsed the residents’ plea to remain in their homes. The residents’ only remaining legal option now is to apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Dale Farm is home to some ninety families who have been involved in a seven-year campaign to be given planning permission to reside on land legally-owned by some of the families, and to have those who are resident on illegal sites around the camp to be given the right to buy and build. Traveller families have lived on the site near the village of Crays Hill, Essex, since the 1960s.
Spirited meeting in Lords
A significant development for the campaign has been the intervention of the UN. On 14 May, a delegation from AGFE was welcomed by a determined group of campaigners at a meeting in the House of Commons. Dale Farm residents and supporters, including other local residents, heard the UN pledge their support for the Travellers and outline the preliminary findings of their fact-finding mission. The attendees also heard of other cases of forcible eviction and were updated on the Dale Farm situation by campaign members.
AGFE, which acts in an advisory capacity to the UN housing agency Habitat, visited eight Traveller sites between 21 and 25 April 2009 which are facing forced evictions. The report of their findings is scheduled for release within a month, timed to coincide with Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month in June. It is expected to be endorsed by Habitat and then officially presented to Downing Street.
The preliminary findings of the advisory group highlighted the discrimination most Travellers experience at virtually every stage of any attempt to acquire sites of their own – from the lack of availability of adequate permanent sites to the racial discrimination and intolerance that appears to be endemic to the process of purchasing land and gaining planning permission to build. The monitors spoke of the numbers of Travellers rendered homeless, or forced to buy land in inappropriate areas and resort to unauthorised development, because of these barriers.
Human rights lawyer and UN delegation member Leticia Osorio called on local authorities to refrain from criminalising communities and to legalise unauthorised sites. She also spoke of local councils’ ongoing failure to designate sites for Travellers and the difficulties that Travellers and Gypsies experienced in finding sites to live on ‘in peace, security and dignity’.
Preparing for and preventing eviction?
The Dale Farm residents, having exhausted all legal avenues of appeal in the UK, must now turn to Europe. They will lodge an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but, knowing that it may take years for the court to rule on their case, residents are hunkering down to fight any attempted eviction by the council.
Several hundred supporters have pledged to join Dale Farm residents in forming a human shield to stop bulldozers reaching their recently-built social centre and chapel, as well as over a hundred chalets, mobile homes and caravans that make up the community. The UN will be in attendance at any eviction, as will human rights monitors and journalists. The council has pledged to give a 28-day notice to leave and a 45-minute warning of the arrival of bailiffs and police.
At the same time, residents are hopeful that the current financial crisis may force the council to reconsider the £2 million eviction and the potential £25 million it would cost to re-house families. They hope the more cost-effective option will be to quietly approve the planning permission so long sought by the residents.
Meanwhile, some ninety homelessness applications, including a joint homelessness application seeking re-accommodation together as a community, have yet to be considered by the council.
Grattan Puxon, spokesperson for the Save Dale Farm campaign, said: ‘We are making a stand and hope to win this campaign, not only for ourselves, but for all Travellers and Roma across Europe.’