As the Gypsy and Traveller community at Dale Farm in Essex continues its long struggle against eviction with another High Court hearing today, seeking a judicial review on a number of grounds, including the absolutely crucial basis that it is “disproportionate” to remove a family from their home when no suitable alternative accommodation exists, a YouGov poll reveals that two-thirds of those asked believe that it is appropriate for Basildon Council to spend £18 million on evicting around 400 people (86 families, including many children) from land they own, but on which they were not given permission to build permanent residences by the council.
Many of those who support the eviction claim to believe that spending £18 million that surely could be spent more usefully elsewhere in the Basildon area is appropriate, because the site the Dale Farm residents own in on green belt land (albeit on the site of a former scrap yard) and it is a necessary principle.
There is some truth in this, to the extent that British people across the political spectrum are obsessed with protecting green belt land from anyone developing it — and not just Gypsies and Travellers — but I find it impossible not to detect the stench of hypocrisy emanating from those taking time out of their otherwise busy lives to obsess about the Dale Farm residents, as I cannot conceive of this happening if the men, women and children to be evicted — at £45,000 a head – were not Travellers and Gypsies.
Racism towards Gypsies is something that settled communities like to pretend doesn’t exist, but it remains virulent and disgraceful, and is clearly at the heart of the conflict over Dale Farm.
The state’s war against Gypsies and Travellers: The 1980s
Disliking one’s neighbours ought not to be sufficient to establish policies in council offices and in central government, but around the country it is and has been for decades — and historically, of course, there is a much longer record of conflict between settled and nomadic people.
Relentlessly persecuted by settled communities, Gypsies in the UK supposedly gained support and protection in 1968, with the passage of the Caravan Sites Act, which required local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies — defined as “persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin” — and which empowered the Secretary of State for the Environment to force them to do so.
Despite the lofty aims, however, providing support for Gypsies and Travellers is never politically popular, because of racism — more generally recognised as NIMBYism, from the phrase “Not in My Back Yard” — and in 1986, there was bleak news when the Thatcher government came to review the legislation.
The context for the 1986 changes, as I explained in my books Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield, both of which deal with the state’s antipathy towards nomadic people in the UK, was the rise of the New Age Traveller movement which Margaret Thatcher had declared war on in 1985.
To deal with the New Age Travellers, Thatcher first — in February 1985 — evicted a community of 150 travellers and protestors from RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, where they were protesting at its planned use as the second cruise missile base in the UK after Greenham Common (where, of course, there was a celebrated and long-established women’s peace camp), in what was the largest ever peacetime mobilisation of troops and police (1,500 Royal Engineers, 600 MoD police and a thousand regular police).
Thatcher’s forces then hounded the travellers across the country until, on June 1, 1985, 1,300 police from six counties and the MoD rounded up and destroyed a convoy of 420 travellers en route to Stonehenge, in an attempt to establish what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival.
When legislation was passed in the wake of the Beanfield, the victors attempted to secure the advantage they had gained through violence in a legislative manner. As I explained in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, Clause 39 of the Public Order Act of 1986 “edged closer to the criminalisation of trespass.” Applied to scheduled monuments (i.e. Stonehenge), “land forming part of a highway,” and agricultural buildings (and, by extension, the land around them), the clause “enabled the police to arrest two or more people for trespass, provided that ‘reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave.’ In addition, the previous requirement for arrest under these circumstances — damage to property — was amended to include the use of ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ and/or the presence of twelve or more vehicles.’”
When the Act was passed, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) noted that, in January 1986, “less than 40 percent of ‘official’ Gypsies had been housed, that the Secretary of State had failed to enforce a single omission and that the ‘new’ travellers were not cared for, despite fulfilling the criteria outlined in the 1968 Act.” the NCCL “proposed immediate action to quell the traditional conflict between travelling people and settled people and to bring to an end the situation whereby ‘both central and local government sat back and waited for the police to use their public order powers to deal with the inevitable conflict.’”
The government, however, ignored the NCCL, and when the Public Order Act became law, not only were some of the worst fears of both the travellers and the NCCL confirmed, but more “traditional” Gypsies also suffered. As I explained, “despite assurances that traditional Gypsies, the long-suffering victims of the state’s aversion to a nomadic way of life, would not be targeted, a group of Gypsies in Somerset were evicted as soon as the Act became law.”
The state’s war against Gypsies and Travellers: The 1990s
With the 1986 Act, the government had stepped up its assault on nomadic people, and a further opportunity to attack Gypsies and Travellers came in 1992, after an unexpected new youth movement — acid house — had erupted in 1987 and 1988, leading to huge raves across the country and, eventually, a cross-over with travellers that led to a gigantic free party — of at least 50,000 people — on Castlemorton Common in Gloucestershire in May 1992. In response, the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, notorious for its attempt to criminalise music consisting of “a succession of repetitive beats,” largely completed what Thatcher had set out to achieve in 1985 and 1986.
As I explained in The Battle of the Beanfield, the 1994 Act, as well as attempting to criminalise dance music, reduced the number of vehicles that could come together in one place from twelve to six before their occupants could be arrested, and criminalised any unauthorised gatherings of 20 people or more to which the state took exception. Identified as “trespassory assemblies,” they could be broken up by the police if they feared “serious disruption to the life of the community,” even if the meeting was non-obstructive and non-violent. The Act also created the crime of “aggravated trespass,” which, as I explained, “fulfilled the right-wing dream of transforming trespass from a civil to a criminal concern.”
As I also explained, the creation of “trespassory assemblies” and “aggravated trespass” had “disturbing ramifications for almost al kinds of protests and alternative gatherings, and clearly had its origins in the problems encountered by the authorities both before and during the Beanfield, when there remained a quaint assumption in British law of a right of assembly without prior state permission.” In legal action taken by travellers after the Battle of the Beanfield, the state had been humiliated in its attempts to make an ancient charge of “unlawful assembly” stick, so the new legislation finally sealed that loophole.
However, although all of the above was bad news for those on the road, and for anyone perceived to be dissenting in any way against an authoritarian government, the Act’s impact on Gypsies and Travellers seeking the right to live on an officially sanctioned site was also a disaster, as it “repealed the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, removing the obligation on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies,” as I explained in The Battle of the Beanfield, and “finally criminalised the entire way of life of Gypsies and travellers, with baleful effects that are still being felt to this day.”
New Labour’s failures revealed, and the coalition’s refusal to address the problems
I wrote that back in 2005, but the situation it described has existed for the last 17 years, and the Labour government did little to improve the living conditions of the nomadic communities in the UK (estimated to be between 120,000 and 300,000 people in total).
In 2003, in a report for the Deputy Prime Minister, Pat Niner of the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Birmingham established that there was “an accommodation crisis” within the Gypsy and Traveller community. The report “estimated that between 3,000 and 4,500 pitches were required to provide secure accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers.” As Pat Niner explained, “We estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 additional residential pitches will be needed over the next five years. Between 2,000 and 2,500 additional pitches on transit sites or stopping places will also be needed to accommodate nomadism. The latter need to form a national network.”
As was revealed in the Guardian yesterday, the Labour government’s belated response was The Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant, launched in 2008, which claimed to have £97m available to “reduce the number of unauthorised sites” and “reduce the need for costly enforcement action.” However, in “a move described as shocking by the Equality and Human Rights Commission,” it was revealed that only £16.9m has been spent, and that “millions of pounds intended for new Gypsy and Traveller sites have been diverted to other projects,” because a “lack of ring-fencing” allowed millions of pounds to be “channelled into affordable homes not intended for Gypsies.”
The government’s Homes and Communities Agency attempted to brush the scandal aside, although their sums didn’t even add up. They told the Guardian that “£15m from the grant was allotted to ‘unfunded commitments in other programmes’ within the National Affordable Homes Programme.”
In light of the revelations, Simon Woolley, a commissioner with responsibility for Travellers, at the EHRC, told the Guardian, “Given that the lack of Traveller sites is central to the Dale Farm problem, it is shocking that millions have been taken away that should have been used for site provision and other projects.” In addition, Lord Avebury, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsy, Roma and Travellers, summed up the government’s contributions; to travellers in recent years as “pretty measly”.
Lord Avebury added, “The government’s policy on Gypsies and Travellers is a shambles – if you are going to put a four-year programme in place then local authorities have to be aware of it and ready to use it. It is indicative of the total lack of willingness of successive governments to address the needs of Gypsies and Travellers.”
As the Guardian explained, “The grant programme, which had a stated aim of creating new, permanent, sites, to ‘tackle the inequalities experienced by Travellers … one of the most disadvantaged [groups] in the country,’ has led to building of just four new sites, with a total of 37 pitches; 62 new pitches were created on existing sites and 178 pitches were refurbished.”
Andrew Slaughter MP, who is a member of the APPG for Gypsy, Roma and Travellers, described a “lack of political will” as being “responsible for the failure to provide” the 3,000 sites required, according to the government’s annual caravan count,” which also echoes the findings of the report for John Prescott in 2003.
Touching on the heart of the racist problem that no one want to acknowledge officially, Andrew Slaughter told the Guardian, “Local authorities are unwilling to take the grant often because of pressure from electors who say they do not want a site near them even it will solve local problems and cost nothing.”
He also explained that the situation facing Gypsies and Travellers “will be worsened by the localism bill, which scraps the requirement for local authorities to use a common method for assessing the needs of Gypsies and Travellers,” and which also maintains the lack of an obligation on councils to allocate sites to Gypsies and Travellers.
The Guardian noted that, under the cover of its purportedly essential austerity cuts (which, in fact, mask a purely ideological assault on public spending), the coalition government had initially “scrapped the Gypsy and Traveller sites grant in 2010-11,” but had “reinstated a sum of £60m for 2011-15,” which is only “about half of the yearly total previously available.” Well primed, the Department for Communities and Local Government told the Guardian that the savage budget cut was part of its “contribution to reducing the national deficit”, and added that “targets had been abolished” because, according to the coalition, “they did not work, alienated communities and did not always accurately reflect the need on the ground.”
The Department also tried to claim that councils are being given “more powers to address local housing and planning issues with ‘incentives’ to provide appropriate sites,” including “the new homes bonus, whereby the government matches additional council tax raised by new homes,” but as Andrew Slaughter pointed out, shooting down another “big society” myth, that bonus is “a perverse incentive,” because councils can “draw significantly more council tax from luxury developments than Traveller sites.”
He added that the situation “was likely to create more Dale Farms,” explaining, “The government has given in to pressure from backbenchers to give local authorities a device to veto construction of new sites. That will mean few if any new sites built even if money’s available, more expensive evictions, more conflict and the continuation of appalling life-indicators for Gypsies and Travellers.”
A no-win situation for Gypsies and Travellers
At the end of this tour through the racism of Little England, no answer is provided to address the no-win situation position in which Gypsies and Travellers have found themselves. Deprived of a statutory requirement to be provided with sites, nomadic people have also found it harder to live on the road than ever before, as settled people’s intolerance of them has grown.
And yet, when travellers respond by buying land, as happened at Dale Farm, they are then prohibited from building on that land. 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.”
The bottom line is that, if land had been provided for the Dale Farm residents, there would have been no need for them to buy the land in the first place from which, on a point of principle, Basildon Council is seeking to remove them at a cost of £18 million. If that was my council, I’d be up in arms about the waste of money and the hypocrisy towards Gypsies and Travellers, but in modern Britain, where racism and xenophobia have been permanently stoked over the last two decades, only a third of British people seem able to look beyond their disgraceful prejudices to see that the 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. Fundamentally, if Gypsies and Travellers won’t give up their way of life, settled people want them to disappear. It is the triumph of NIMBYism — 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.