Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Dale Farm: Hatred, fear and hypocrisy lay behind the evictions.
Institutional racism was defined by the Stephen Lawrence report as "collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin."Under this definition the forced eviction of Dale Farm travellers is the biggest single incident of institutionalised racism in Britain, defying commercial or common sense.Leader of Conservative Basildon council Tony Ball has staked his political career on the eviction, promising to resign if the travellers were not gone by the autumn.Last December Ramsden Crays Residents Association manoeuvred Ball into stating "that illegal sites at Dale Farm and Hovefields must be cleared this municipal year."If Ball doesn't deliver, anti-traveller campaigners will make it untenable for him to stay.Lynda Gordon, Labour Group leader at Basildon council, says: "The council doesn't have to pursue [the travellers] at this stage."We can continue to negotiate and try to find them somewhere else to live, but the council doesn't want to do that because they will come under enormous pressure whatever site they choose."A report by the University of Salford, Looking Back, Moving Forward, found that the main barrier to providing the required additional pitches was anti-traveller feeling.During a consultation with Essex planners, including representatives from Basildon, Councillor Phil Rackley of the council's planning committee noted planners advised refusal of every traveller application - even before the application was accepted for consideration.Rackley thinks the issue is "dividing the whole community. The anti-traveller movement in Crays Hill is in a minority, but they've got political will."He sighs when I ask him if it will ever be possible to find additional pitches in Basildon."It's the obvious solution. It's a question of political will and the administration that runs the council," he says. The administration has rejected what Gordon believes is the principled position to provide additional pitches despite anti-traveller racism.Grattan Puxon of Dale Farm Residents Association says that when Homes and Community Agency land was offered at the nearby town of Pitsea, Basildon MP John Baron "notoriously stood outside a supermarket close to the site and helped collect 5,000 signatures, but the council also sent out a letter to all the residents of Pitsea which produced 400 complaints because really they were canvassing for complaints by doing that."The application was refused as it was felt the site would cause "disturbance."This policy seemingly acknowledges anti-traveller feeling as a planning consideration.Gordon is concerned because "reports are written in a biased fashion. I've questioned if information is relevant or a material consideration - why it should be in a report - but it's like flogging a dead horse."Not one additional pitch has been created in the past 10 years and many unauthorised pitches have been the lost when authorities "enforced planning conditions."Despite Ball's inflated claims that he is "upholding the law," planning enforcement is discretionary.Travellers have not broken the law, merely contravened planning policy.Planning permission could have been granted under the rural exceptions caveat if Basildon had been determined to meet its legal obligations.The defence of five acres of hardstanding to preserve the countryside is manifestly hypocritical when green belt development in Basildon is scrutinised.Basildon plans to sell much of its open spaces.Head planner Clive Simpson's decision to approve a landfill site on the local golf course was described as "legally inadequate" by a judicial review.Development has taken place on the green belt at the Billericay School Farm site, Bank Hall and Gloucester Park. The Dry Street wildlife haven, which the Conservatives vowed to protect, recently gained Basildon Council approval for hundreds of "aspirational" homes.Basildon approves selective green belt development. So why is it attaching such importance to a tiny piece of land with no conservation value bordered by land earmarked for development?In November the Homes and Community Agency (HCA) offered an alternative site on HCA land in Basildon. The council pulled out of the "secret" talks.A few weeks later the HCA announced that it would not pursue the matter without the backing of Basildon council.Without the will, there is unlikely to be a way to provide additional traveller pitches in Basildon.A further application to locate traveller pitches on HCA land at Church Street which fulfilled development criteria was turned down due to "conservation issues" and "vehicular access."Yet the Highways Agency had no objections and a comprehensive biodiversity report highlighted the fact that without remediation the conservation value of the land was questionable.The report concluded that development should have been possible if measures to increase and protect biodiversity were adopted.Rackley has no recollection of having seen the report but he remembers that planners recommended refusal.Gordon says that "Conservatives don't seem to have the same opposition to Dry Street. It's of special interest and environmentally it would be a disaster if it was developed. They have a completely different view on Dry Street as opposed to the small site behind St Nicholas church."Lo and behold, travellers wanted to use it and then [they say] we must save it, come what may."Puxon says: "It would be possible to have a transfer of all the families at Dale Farm peacefully. They [the council] would rather see everybody kicked out of the district so that they don't ever have to fulfil that duty."Gordon agrees with this and thinks that "Basildon is basically saying we've got enough [traveller sites] and we won't take any more. Well, that doesn't really help the people of Dale Farm who have a local connection but they are being asked to leave the site when there is no other provision for them."Unless they want to split up, take them away from the services they need, from their family support, why should the travellers be treated in that way when nobody in the settled community would stand for it?"Britain has been accused of breaching international law by denying Dale Farm travellers the right to adequate housing, the right to be defended against forced eviction and protection from discrimination.The government's shameful decision to back the eviction ignores international protocol and undermines Britain's claim to uphold human rights in any other part of the world.David Cameron personally intervened to ensure that Basildon received public funding to meet the £18.5 million cost of the eviction.No other ethnic minority in Britain would accept such an attempt to destroy their culture and way of life.Like the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, the eviction of travellers at Dale Farm is a defining moment in British race relations.The enforced eviction of Dale Farm travellers raises urgent questions as to the fundamental changes that are necessary to ensure politicians, governments and institutions respond to racism within the moral, legal and humanitarian limits of British and international law.Dale Farm: The backgroundThere has been a dangerous failure on the part of Basildon council to meet its responsibilities in its handling of provision of traveller pitches over a 10-year period.Dale Farm was first designated as green belt land in the 1960s, even though it is a former scrap yard and of questionable environmental value.Planning permission was later obtained for much of the land as a traveller site.In 1994 home secretary Michael Howard's changes to the Public Order Act criminalised unauthorised encampment and relinquished the duty of local authorities to develop traveller pitches.Over the next 15 years, travellers flocked to Dale Farm in search of sanctuary from the stress and antagonism of a roadside existence and enforced evictions.The encampment spread beyond the development line incurring the wrath of local residents who used this to legitimise anti-traveller feeling.The 2004 Housing Act reinstated the legal requirement for local authorities to make provision for additional traveller pitches.Until Eric Pickles's Localism Bill is passed, this ruling prevails.Traveller pitches are designated social housing units and included in affordable housing targets.Despite promises from then secretary of state John Prescott that additional places would be found in Basildon, not one new pitch was created.