Can we rationalise the Dale Farm eviction?
As the rest of the country digests the bleak figures that homelessness has risen by a fifth in the last year, and that housing construction has hit a 30-year low, Basildon Council’s priorities seem to lie elsewhere. This week, the council bailiffs begin the mammoth task of evicting the UK’s biggest illegal travellers’ settlement at Dale Farm, Essex.
An act with highly dubious motivations, questionable legality and a staggering £18.5m price tag, the unprecedented eviction has raised voices of objection from the UN, Amnesty International, and more famously from Big Brother winner Paddy Doherty and actor Vanessa Redgrave.
For those who like their topical irony served as a direct, sharp smack in the face, let me direct you to the Community and Local Government department’s proposals to combat rising homelessness by taking inspiration from the travelling life, and housing the homeless in caravans. Seriously.
Other than the disputed claim that Dale Farm is on ‘greenbelt’ land, the most prominent cry in favour of the eviction is that we all, gypsy and gorjer alike, must obey the law of the land. It’s a trite, feeble declaration that has been bleated by everyone from the Daily Mail to Ed Miliband.
Ideally, of course, the law could be fittingly summoned as the administer of justice, and the ‘one rule for us, another for them’ complaint might actually hold some water. Instead, Miliband and Cameron embarrassingly trot out this mantra of legality with no concession to the evidence that the planning process is a flawed system.
When more than 90% of planning applications from travellers are initially rejected, compared to 20% overall, can you still vacuously rationalise the Dale Farm eviction as an enactment of fairness?
If gypsies are to obey the law like ‘everyone else’, the law needs to treat them like everyone else. Planning law is evidently not administered without duly accommodating ethnic prejudice. It’s a problem that has escaped the attention of the right-wing press, who in their reporting and comment on Dale Farm neglect to even briefly mention planning law, let alone grapple with its inequalities. I guess it doesn’t make for the most salacious reading.
The fact that anti-gypsy prejudice is probably the most culturally acceptable form of racism might also explain the array of hysterical reporting. On the day of the Dale Farm demonstration, as the 200-strong crowd (regrettably, largely made up of clueless hippies) marched to Dale Farm, one bystander was mounted on top of a construction vehicle in his garden, uttering slurs and shaking his head in distain – behaviour I had become pretty familiar with that afternoon. I asked one of the traveller women who it was. “Oh, it’s more of our friendly neighbours!” she smiled, sarcastic but upbeat. I admired her ability to shrug off the fact that her way of life was so transparently loathed.
Part of the reason I find the Dale Farm saga so dispiriting is because of my experiences growing up. From the age of six, I lived adjacent to a legal travellers’ site in Devon. In my sixteen years of living there, the site has homed five different groups of travellers, from many walks of traveller life; a Romani family with ponies and traditional caravans, to glorious, palatial mobile homes surrounded by glittering cars.
Growing up, the only other youth in my incredibly rural neighbourhood were traveller kids and we played with them, messing around on the overgrown, single-lane country roads just we would with any other children. We knew they lived differently to us, and often traveller children spoke differently too, but I never felt that being from a settled family made me an incongruous playmate for them. My mum and dad never spelt out that a lot of other parents wouldn’t dream of letting their kids monkey around with gypsy children.
Granted, anecdotal evidence of this sort doesn’t go far in a thorough debate, but this background is the reason I am saddened and nonplussed by systematic attacks on the gypsy and traveller people.
What is more significant than tales of my childhood shenanigans is the fact that although the adult travellers by my house mostly did – and do – ‘keep themselves to themselves’, there was never any community feuding; never any conflict over waste management, no boundary disputes, no dog-walking altercations or any other middle-England gossip fodder. This is because their site was legal and well-managed. Curtain-twitchers were left with nothing to whine about. Travellers enjoyed a mutually agreeable interaction with the local authority because they were supposed to be there. In fact, when one resident applied for planning permission to build a traditional cob and thatch cottage, the council refused. A legal, successful travellers’ pitch was far too precious a resource for them to re-purpose as a permanent homestead, however quaint.
Rather than being hounded, criminalised, scapegoated and eventually evicted, these families could make the site their home and live alongside bricks and mortar peacefully. I have seen first-hand that when gypsies are suitably accommodated, it works – and everyone can get on with rukus-free lives.
This is why I summon all my optimism in hope that the Dale Farm eviction proves to be an anomaly, rather than a sign of things to come.Tagged in: caravan, dale farm, gypsies, housing, travellers
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