Dale Farm: The battle to save Britain’s biggest traveller community

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Feb 2 21:58:23 GMT 2011

Dale Farm: The battle to save Britain’s biggest traveller community
By Emily Dugan - Independent - Sunday, 30 January 2011

The entrance to Dale Farm looks more like a 
fortress than a settlement these days. The 
largest traveller site in Europe, which sits on 
the outskirts of Basildon, is preparing for its biggest stand-off yet.

The makeshift village of 96 families, around 
since the 1960s, faces the imminent threat of 
being destroyed. Using scaffolding, piled-up 
tyres and razor-wire, its occupants have drawn up 
the battle lines at its entrance. "WE WON'T GO" 
reads the banner set against the grey Essex sky.

The battle for this land is set to begin next 
month, and will be watched closely by the 300,000 
or so traditional travellers estimated to be 
living in the UK today: it comes at a time when 
travellers and Romany gypsies say they are 
feeling more marginalised than ever by public attitudes and Government policy.

Travellers are used to persecution in Britain: in 
the 16th century, laws were passed in England 
condemning gypsies to death if they did not give 
up their wanderings, and land legislation until 
the late 18th century ensured that they were hounded off sites.

Now travellers believe the tide is turning 
against them once more. Since coming into power 
the Coalition has reversed a series of measures 
which sought to combat prejudice and facilitate 
the settlement of travellers on authorised sites. 
Gypsy History Month, which was introduced by the 
Labour Government in 2007, had its funding cut in 
the first Coalition budget; the Gypsy and 
Traveller Sites Grant, which provided £96m to 
local authorities to build new sites for 
settlements has also been ended, along with the 
Regional Spatial Strategy, which impelled local 
authorities to assess the settlement needs of 
local traveller communities and provide the requisite number of pitches.

This month the Government announced it would be 
using the new Localism Bill to bring in 
legislation that will make it harder for 
residents to continue living at long-standing 
traveller sites. Environment secretary Caroline 
Spelman said the Localism Bill will "bring about 
fairness between the settled and travelling 
communities" by making provision for authorised 
sites. But travellers are sceptical of the 
development, which means they are unable to 
obtain planning permission after they have set up camp.

"For the past 500 years the state has tried to 
legislate us out of existence. This takes us 
right back," says Jake Bowers, a Romany 
journalist and editor of Travellers' Times 
magazine. "It's a bigots' charter. If you give 
local people decisions over who lives in their 
area, the monoculture already there will not 
allow there to be a multiculture. The English 
countryside has become a monoculture of rich, 
middle-class white people. Now they're the local 
people, they will not allow people from other 
cultures to come in. We're slipping back to the 
time of the Enclosures Act of the 1700s, when 
gyspies were marginalised. But if the Enclosures 
Act didn't get rid of us, Caroline Spelman hasn't got a chance."

"The Government telling local communities they 
can make the planning decisions they want would 
be terrible news for gypsies," adds Dr Robert 
Home, an expert in UK traveller and gypsy 
communities from Anglia Ruskin University, 
"because local residents are likely to object to 
any sites. People don't want gypsies around."

It seems the public appetite for the portrayal of 
travellers as exotic outsiders is as strong as 
ever – Channel Four's tactfully named series My 
Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is currently a ratings hit. 
But photographer Josh Cole is trying to do 
something different. For the past five years he 
has been working on a series of photographs 
called "Gypsies Not Tramps or Thieves", aimed at 
showing the everyday lives of travellers and 
illustrating that in many ways their lives are 
not so different from any other Britons.

"I was intrigued because when I was a kid growing 
up in Lewes near Brighton, there were a lot of 
gypsies staying near us and there was this aura 
about them of hard men you don't muck around 
with," says Cole. "There was always this feeling 
that if you did go to the sites, you'd get into trouble or into a fight."

Cole has come to Dale Farm to make a record of 
the lives of those waiting to see if they will 
lose their homes for k ever. One of the families 
he has worked with is the McCarthys. Mary-Ann 
McCarthy has lived on Dale Farm in a chalet for 
the past nine years and is happy to remain in the 
one place for the first time in her life. The 
69-year-old explains: "All the camps that we used 
to go to have been razed to the ground now, so 
where would we go? All my family is here: my 
seven children, 20 grandchildren and four 
great-grandchildren. This is the first time in my 
life that I've been settled. Before this, I 
travelled my whole life in a horse-drawn cart, 
but I can't go back on the road now – it'd be too 
hard. For the bulldozers to come and just kick us 
out, I can't imagine it. They should have a heart."

The row with the council affects around half of 
those living on the site, who do not have 
planning permission to do so. Gypsies and 
travellers have lived in one section of Dale Farm 
legally since the 1960s but since then more and 
more people have joined them on neighbouring land 
and the community now stands at around 1,000 people.

After a legal battle that went all the way to the 
Law Lords last year, and failed, the residents 
have exhausted their legal means of resistance. 
That does not mean they won't try other methods 
to keep the homes that some have lived in, albeit 
illegally, for decades. Basildon Council is 
required to give 28 days' notice for an eviction. 
As soon as notice is served, which is expected 
any day, the residents will be doing everything 
they can to prepare for a fight. Violence is 
anticipated, and it has been estimated that it 
could cost £13m to evict families from the site.

Mary-Ann's 24-year-old granddaughter, Maggie 
McCarthy, has a four-month-old baby, Jasmine. She 
is worried that – like her – Jasmine will be 
unable to get a proper education if they are 
moved off the site. At the moment, many children 
are taught at the local primary school, but 
without an address and a permanent home it will 
be tough to get her through school. "I never had 
an education and I want her to get on. I want to 
stay here for her sake as much as anything."

Maggie's 20-year-old brother, Jim McCarthy, says: 
"If they come with bulldozers, we'll have to 
fight. We can't give up on our homes." His older 
brother John agrees, adding half-jokingly: "I'll 
do anything to keep this place: petrol bombs, 
hand-grenades, whatever I can get my hands on."

A group of primary-school-age boys gathered at 
the razor-wired entrance take it in turns to skid 
around on a bike, nipped at the ankles by a pack 
of small dogs. They are no less vociferous in 
their opposition to the impending bulldozers than 
their elders. As one nine-year-old says, "We'd 
put up a fight. If anyone came here with 
bulldozers we'd sink a fucking bat in their head."

But James O'Leary, who has been coming and going 
from the site "since it was first here", is not 
holding out much hope that anyone will help them 
stay. "No one will care we're losing our homes 
because people think we're scum."
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