Dale Farm highlights need for new approach to travellers

September 22, 2011

By Mark Hillary. The opinions expressed are his own.

The Dale Farm barricades are being dismantled and all political eyes are now focused on the party conference season. Just yesterday, Nick Clegg managed to impress the Lib Dem faithful in Birmingham, though convincing the voters that all is well with the good ship Lib Dem might be a bigger challenge for the Deputy PM.

But as the dust settles on Dale Farm, have we learned anything from the fiasco where Basildon Council attempted to evict 52 families from their homes, with no option of staying in the area due to there being no other local authorised sites for travellers?

It would appear not. Some travellers are now dispersing to other illegal sites throughout the south of England and the council is fighting tooth and nail to get the injunction preventing eviction quashed – so they can carry on.

The issue for the council is simple. A group of travellers on an authorised site purchased some adjoining land and started expanding their site into the new area. They own the land, but had not been granted planning permission for the extended site.

It’s an open and shut case – no planning permission means no building and any buildings that have been erected without permission need to be destroyed.

The general public has a lot of sympathy with this no-nonsense approach. Travellers are generally seen as scroungers who want to avoid the normal structures of society – taxes and planning permission – yet they squeal about the Human Rights act when challenged. The man in the street could for forgiven for asking why there is one set of rules for travellers and another for the average law-abiding citizen.

But the situation is rather more complex. Travellers and the Gypsy community suffer prejudice because of their itinerant lifestyle. When they do settle into a site and attempt to follow the rules, many interactions with local government are coloured by councillor attitudes to travellers.

The BBC reported that nine out of ten planning applications made by travellers is rejected, and two out of every three appeals also fails. Many of these planning applications will have failed because the council is desperate to keep a lid on the size of the traveller community, perhaps hoping that if there is not enough space they will just move on to become a problem in another county.

The reality is that if planning applications are almost certain to fail, then travellers won’t even bother applying and a situation such as that at Dale Farm emerges.

In an ideal world it could be argued that councillors need to drop their prejudice for travellers when reviewing planning applications – somehow leaving their preconceptions at the town hall door. But this is unrealistic. Even anonymous planning applications would not work because who else would be submitting a planning application inside or adjacent to a traveller community, but travellers?

With central and local government under intense pressure to slash budgets, the outlook is not good for the travellers. Councils are under an obligation to offer sites to the travelling community, but nobody will be offering more places in the present climate of austerity.

But shifting them from one county to the next and preventing them from ever putting down roots, or expanding their community beyond the confines of a legally approved ‘traveller zone’ does not help the travellers or the ‘regular’ communities they buffet against.

It’s time for local governments to start proposing alternative solutions. Every councillor would prefer a settled community paying council tax to the difficulties of offering basic services to travellers. It’s time for both sides to start talking, without the bailiffs at the door.

Image — A sign is attached to a gate post on the Dale Farm traveller site, near Billericay in southern England September 19, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGrego

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