Gypsies at the Payne’s Lane site are being threatened with prison by Epping Forest District Council if they do not leave. Three BNP councillors were recently elected promising to evict Gypsies.
Harry and Linda Smith are the only remaining Gypsies at the Payne’s Lane site on the edge of the Lea Valley Park. Harry has lived at the site for fourteen years on land he bought for himself. The surrounding area is rich in Gypsy history. Epping Forest has been home to thousands of Gypsies over past centuries and was the birthplace of Rodney Smith, the famous evangelical preacher who came from a local Gypsy family.
On Monday this week, the last of the other families left the Payne’s Lane site after Epping Forest District Council said that anyone remaining would be committed to prison and have their children taken into care. According to the Council, an injunction to leave will be enforced on 23 August 2004. The pressure on the Council to act has increased following the election of three BNP councillors in Epping Forest earlier this month. In its election manifesto, the BNP explicitly targetted Gypsies, stating: ‘BNP councillors will press for the power to immediately evict Travellers/Gypsies from private or council lands and to ensure that they are held accountable for their actions.’ Over 1,100 people voted for the BNP in the recent local elections for Epping Forest District Council. People living near to the Payne’s Lane site have also attempted to intimidate Gypsies by blocking the entrance with a skip and scrap metal, making the site inaccessible to emergency services.
The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act abolished the duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers, which had existed since 1968. Even before the Act, many local authorities had closed down sites in response to anti-Gypsy hostility. As a result, many Gypsies, including Harry Smith, bought their own land to avoid the constant threat of council eviction. But, even on their own land, the issue of planning permission remained. According to the Traveller Law Research Unit, while 80 per cent of all planning permission applications are approved, 90 per cent of applications submitted by Gypsies are refused. Due to a lack of authorised sites, approximately one third of Gypsy Travellers are forced to stop on sites without permission, where they face being moved on as the law catches up with them. The Traveller Law Reform Coalition is calling for the government to introduce a clear duty on councils to provide and facilitate sites and a moratorium on evictions.
In the meantime, Harry Smith is bringing his own test case to challenge the present set-up. He has now registered as homeless but stated on the form that, as a Gypsy, he cannot accept normal housing and wants land to live on instead. He is being supported by Grattan Puxon, a member of the Gypsy Council and long-time campaigner for Gypsy rights, who says that more and more Gypsies have been facing eviction recently. ‘The situation is much worse than it ever has been because there is no duty on local authorities to provide sites. There are lots of circulars and recommendations but no legal duty. So wherever the BNP have gained votes, there is added pressure to evict.’ Puxon warns that Gypsies living at another much larger site, at Dale Farm, near Basildon, face eviction next May. The site is currently home to 700 people.