Dale Farm: The battle to save Britains biggest traveller community
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Feb 2 21:58:23 GMT 2011
Dale Farm: The battle to save Britains 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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