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The Dale Farm Eviction: Using Planning Laws To Justify Racism Towards Gypsies And Travellers – OpEd

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What a disgraceful day to be British.

In Basildon today, riot police have been leading the eviction of 86 Gypsy and traveller families from land they own at Dale Farm, but for which they do not have planning permission, hospitalising several residents, tasering others, and generally creating a situation that is reminiscent of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher regularly used the police as her own private army. See here for more photos.

After a ten-year struggle between Basildon Council and the residents of Dale Farm, the last legal appeal was exhausted last week, when, in the High Court, Mr. Justice Ouseley ruled that the removal of the 86 families was necessary to avoid “the criminal law and the planning system being brought into serious disrepute.”

I don’t deny that the residents of Dale Farm who erected permanent structures on their land, without planning permission, have broken the law, but what seems to be generally ignored, in the haze of self-righteousness from settled people, is the blunt truth that Gypsies and travellers are rarely given planning permission for land they buy.

As Jake Bowers, a Romani journalist, explained in an informative booklet, “Gypsies and Travellers: Their lifestyle, history and culture” (PDF), Gypsy families that attempt to live on their own land are often denied planning permission … The government’s own studies state that over 80% of planning applications from settled people are granted consent, while more than 90% of applications from Gypsies are refused.”

In addition, it needs to be remembered that Gypsies and travellers were only forced into a position where buying land seemed to be a sound idea because the Tory government of John Major repealed the 1968 Caravans Act, which required councils to provide Gypsies and travellers with sites, and, instead, explicitly encouraged them to buy the land which they are then prohibited from using for any kind of permanent structure, as the Dale farm residents have discovered.

Three weeks ago, in my article, The Dale Farm Eviction: How Racism Against Gypsies and Travellers Grips Modern-Day Britain, I ran throughout he whole sad history of how, frost under Margaret Thacher, and then under John major, the stae’s obligationto provide for Gypsies and travellers was eroded, leading to the repeal of the Caravans Act, and I also pointed out how the Labour government did nothing to improve the situation, and the Tory-led coalition government’s localism bill will only make matter worse for Gypsies and travellers.

What also dismays me about this situation, as I also explained three weeks ago, is how racism is so obviously prevalent in settled people’s response to the Dale Farm story, despite the constant bluster that it is about “principles,” and this is apparent not only in the disgraceful outpouring of racist comments online following any article regarding Gypsies, travellers and the residents of Dale Farm, but also in the work of some so-called journalists like Amanda Platell, the Australian-born former press secretary to William Hague, who wrote a disgraceful article in today’s Daily Mail, in which she implied that all the men at Dale Farm were criminals. “[O]ne must wonder why the male travellers are so shy of the cameras,” she wrote. “What do they have to hide? I think we can all imagine the answer to that one.”

I also remain disappointed that the people of Basildon haven’t insisted that their council found another use for £18 million of their money, which could surely have been put to a better purpose than removing Gypsies and travellers from their homes at the cost of £45,000 a head, and I remain disturbed that, despite protestations to the contrary, the council did not seek to create a new site for the travellers, who need about 80 pitches. Although Tony Ball, the head of the council, pointed out that there were “a number of pitches available on the legal site next to Dale Farm,” there were not enough, and his major contribution to the discussion about where the evicted residents were supposed to go was to tell the BBC, “We have made the travellers aware of what is available, for example there is room at St. Helens but they have told us they do not wish to move to the North West.” What, I wonder, was he thinking when he made that comment?

As I explained in my previous article:

[T]he residents of Dale Farm were, essentially, driven into a trap by a society that, fundamentally, doesn’t want to make any provision for Gypsies and Travellers, and wants them to give up their way of life. When they refuse, as the erosion of their rights over the last 25 years reveals, settled society has no answer as to what it expects them to do. Basically, if Gypsies and Travellers won’t give up their way of life, settled people want them to disappear. It is the triumph of NIMBYism [Not In My Back Yard] — a deeply unpleasant manifestation of collective intolerance — and it fails to create a solution to a long-standing problem that settled people and their elected representatives have contributed to over many years.

As the events of this grim day continue, with the Guardian‘s coverage here, I’m cross-posting below two articles that also deal effectively with the issues raised. The first, from Comment is free in today’s Guardian online, is by the Dale Farm Solidarity group, whose website is here, which explains more about the problems facing Gypsies and travellers, and the second is by the journalist and science writer  Francis Sedgemore, from his blog, in which he highlights the hypocrisy of the government, comparing and contrasting its plans to ease planning laws for the rich, while still criminalising Gypsies and travellers, and, in a sober analysis of the situation, recognises where the Dale Farm residents have crossed a legal line, but also points out that today’s eviction smacks of what he describes as “the last form of acceptable racism in Britain.”

Dale Farm’s legacy goes beyond the 82 families who are homeless tonight
Dale Farm Solidarity group, The Guardian, October 19, 2011

The shadows of police and bailiffs loom large for Traveller families across the UK. Forced evictions cannot be peaceful — the violence comes from the brutal act of ripping someone from their home.

Dale Farm is the largest community of its kind, and its eviction is among the biggest in recorded history. Eighty-two families are facing the fact that they have nowhere to sleep tonight. The operation to do this has cost the taxpayer at least £18m.

Dale Farm’s size has also awakened many in Britain to the criminalisation of Travellers. Today’s operation has been harrowing for all the families and supporters involved. We have seen the police enter the site by smashing through a legal plot that was assumed to be safe by elderly residents seeking refuge. As police sledgehammered a wall on this plot, these elderly residents were seriously injured. A Dale Farm mother is in hospital and can’t move her legs after being beaten by police; tasers have been used, despite being declared inappropriate for public order situations; and seven people have been taken away in ambulances. But how did it get to this?

The police brutality seen at Dale Farm today is not a one-off, but part of a long-running criminalisation of Traveller communities and culture. Until 1994, all local councils had been required to offer a designated amount of Traveller pitches in their area. The Conservative government repealed this, leaving at least 5,000 families without a legal home.

Today, councils are 20,000 pitches short of their legal duties, and even these unenforced responsibilities will be removed by the Localism Bill. These guidelines, like the Travellers they’re designed for, have simply been ignored, the result being 18% of Gypsies and Travellers were homeless in 2003 compared with 0.6% of the UK population. This is why Dale Farm residents are engaging in civil disobedience to resist the eviction — the alternative is homelessness.

There is however something else that’s unprecedented about the situation at Dale Farm: the growth of a solidarity movement to promote the civil rights of Travelllers. At the eviction today, protesters and residents occupied the tops of towers and caravans together, resisting the brutal eviction for as long as possible.

The ideas that have coalesced around the Dale Farm community are simple. Travellers are simply asking for the right to exist legally. Despite the grim and brutal scenes we’ve seen today at Dale Farm, the least we can hope is that these messages will be heard.

Dale Farm – the final battle
By Francis Sedgemore, October 19, 2011

Now let me see if I’ve got this straight. The UK state, in the hands of its rightful proprietors, the Conservative and Unionist Party, is intent on overhauling planning laws so as to boost economic growth and facilitate housing development on non-urban land. As part of the government’s so-called ‘localism’ agenda, which is made possible through some typically Tory centralisation, housing development companies, among whom are some notable Conservative Party doners, will only be prevented from carrying out their plans if there is is an overwhelming case against (read: one that cannot be kept under the radar of community and media scrutiny). Government policy includes measures to fast-track the usual planning and consultation process, which is music to the ears of the ‘entrepreneurial’ class.

On the other hand, another group of entrepreneurs, this time in the form of a traveller community living in one of the grottier bits of Essex, is being met with all the obstructive powers that the state can muster. As I type, Dale Farm is being trashed by police and local government agents, and residents’ blood mopped up in advance of the arrival of the world’s television news crews and human rights inspectors. In addition to truncheons, fists and boots, police tasers were used at dawn against defenders the site. This, in contravention of Home Office guidelines which clearly state that the ostensibly non-lethal firearms are not to be employed in crowd control situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending the Dale Farm community’s building of housing structures on land they own, but for which there is no legal planning consent. There is a good argument for granting consent, but there is also due process, and travellers are not known for respecting such niceties. I can admire and respect the travellers for their creative contempt for authority, but the consequences are clear enough. If you pick a fight with the state, then for goodness sake ensure that you possess superior firepower, both physical and rhetorical. Fail to do so, and you will at the very least get a severe kicking from the state’s uniformed enforcers.

The Dale Farm community may not have a legal leg to stand on, but their moral case, while a little frayed in places, is sound, even if they are taking liberties with it for PR effect. This case has even attracted the attention of a senior UN adviser who accused Basildon Council of having broken human rights laws, and drew parallels with China and Nigeria.

Basildon Council offered alternative, bricks-and-mortar accommodation to the travellers, displaying a typically bourgeois British racism against gypsies and travellers. “We will socially engineer you out of existence,” the ruling class are saying in effect.

After lengthy legal toing and froing, the travellers lost their final appeal against eviction, and were left to await the inevitable. They and their crusty supporters then hunkered down for a final battle, but the writing was on the wall, and more than figuratively speaking. Before dawn this morning, the Essex police tooled up, beat their chests and shields, and steamed in through a back gate while a few suits and senior plods distracted residents with discussions at the front. Further proof, if proof be needed, that the state has no sense of honour or decency.

Is hatred of gypsies the last form of acceptable racism in Britain?


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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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