Traveller families living on Dale Farm in Essex are facing what they describe as an outpouring of racism and prejudice as they await a Court of Appeal decision on their threatened eviction.
The site at Dale Farm houses some ninety families, all of whom will be evicted if Basildon District Council is successful: it is currently awaiting a decision from the Court of Appeal. Residents include other Traveller families who have sought refuge at Dale Farm following eviction elsewhere. A community school on the site, which caters for Traveller children who have been unable to attend local schools because of allegations of bullying and racist taunts, also faces demolition.
Although the Travellers own the land at Dale Farm the council has denied them permission to develop it on the grounds that the site is within the Green Belt and is protected by environmental regulations. The council has also refused to make other land available to the Travellers, as it is required to do.
In early December 2008, an application by some of the Dale Farm Travellers to join the local Residents’ Association in the hope of building closer ties with other residents in the area was rejected. A letter from the Association, sent five months after the initial application was made, said that their membership would not lead to greater community cohesion.
The Travellers were also rejected on the grounds that they were in an ongoing legal dispute with the council. However Clive Mardner, the director of Essex Racial Equality Council, has said that he will be raising the Residents’ Association’s decision with the Equality and Human Rights Commission as he believes it to be an illegal decision.
After the story appeared in the local newspaper, the Echo, the paper’s website received a series of comments, some of which referred to the Travellers as ‘dirty thieving law breaking scumbags’, ‘outlaws’ and ‘tax dodgers’. The Travellers have since sent a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, about both the comments on the Echo site and about a series of inflammatory articles in the national print media about Traveller communities in general.
The housing crisis within the Traveller and Gypsy community dates back to 1994 when John Major’s government abolished the Caravan Sites Act, which obliged local authorities to provide adequate sites for the UK’s estimated 300,000 Travellers and Gypsies. Since then, many Travellers have bought land but have seen the vast majority of their applications for planning permission for permanent sites rejected. Their caravans are thus left on land which they own but for which they have no planning permission to live on.
The 2004 Housing Act reversed the Major government’s repeal and now requires councils to meet Travellers’ accommodation needs. The government has since earmarked £97 million to be spent over the next three years on building new, and improving existing, sites for up to 25,000 Travellers and Gypsies.