Travellers living in Dale Farm face a bleak winter. It is just over two years since Basildon council evicted them from their land and demolished their homes, reports Sadie Robinson
For many Christmas is a time to celebrate. But for one group of families in Essex it will be just another day spent in cold caravans on a muddy roadside surrounded by rats.
It’s just over two years since Basildon council evicted 86 families from the Dale Farm Traveller site. Many are still living on the road just yards from the plots they were forced from—because they have nowhere else to go.
And shockingly, Basildon council’s new housing report said that evicted Dale Farm Travellers will not be housed for being a burden. The council admits that this decision is “political” (see below).
Mary Sheridan is one of those evicted in October 2011. She told Socialist Worker, “I’ve lived at Dale Farm for eight years. “I was happy living here. But look at how we have to live now. We’re living in filth.”
The road is covered in mud and potholes. Women are forever pouring soapy water outside their homes in an effort to keep things clean.
Brid, who has lived at the site for around six years, is one of them. She told Socialist Worker she cleaned the roads around every two hours. “I’ve got pains in my back now after lifting the water for cleaning the road,” she said.
Before the eviction Dale Farm was divided into legal and illegal plots. Travellers living on the illegal plots owned the land but had been repeatedly refused planning permission to live there.
Now those stuck on the roadside have to rely on people living in legal plots to supply them with water and electricity. Cables run over the wall from chalets on the legal site to the caravans.
Brid said her main worry was for the children. “A lot of kids are getting sick here,” she said. “There’s a lot of sickness and diarrhoea. There are no toilets. If the council brought in disposable ones we would take care of them and clean them ourselves. They should try to do something about this. We’re living like rats.”
Living on the roadside means living next to a regular flow of traffic. “It’s worse when the snow and ice comes,” said Brid. “You’re scared that the cars will skid and come right into the caravan.”
The Environment Agency has confirmed that there is asbestos at Dale Farm. And the Red Cross reported concerns about “raw sewage” and the lack of toilets.
Martin O’Leary is another Traveller who was evicted from the site. He told Socialist Worker that the area he used to live on “is now a pothole, a swimming pool for rats”.
"You can hear them at night,” added John Fox, “If you throw a piece of food outside at night you can hear them rush for it.”
Basildon council leader Tony Ball led the eviction—at a cost of over £7 million. He then claimed the council would offer “housing assistance” to those made homeless. But as Mary put it, “Two years later, we’ve got nothing.”
Paddy said the treatment of Travellers have showed that Ball is “prejudiced”.
“Ball should’ve spent the money he spent evicting us on a new site,” said Paddy. “We would’ve loved to have moved out if there was a new site to go to. But he’s gone home to his big house and his big TV. Look how we’re living. We’re human beings. But they’re treating us like animals.”
Travellers at Dale Farm are used to racist scapegoating. As Martin put it, “This area has one of the lowest crime rates in Basildon. But whenever there’s a crime, they always blame the gypsies.”
Basildon council said it evicted Travellers from Dale Farm because it wanted to “return” the land to greenbelt. But before Travellers bought the land, it was a scrap yard.
And the former site was dug up by bulldozers during the eviction. Deep trenches that stop vehicles returning to the site have mixed up tarmac, soil and concrete.
Piles of bricks and wood litter the site with old furniture, children’s toys, a mattress, carpets and bags of sand. People have been forced to use the land as a toilet in the absence of anything else.
“We’re still not back to ourselves,” said Margaret Gammell. “It’s terrible stress.”
“It’s not fair,” added John. “We never stole the land—we bought it. All that money they spent on the eviction and we’re still here. But now we’re living in a health hazard.”
Some people ask why the Travellers don’t travel and go elsewhere. But changes in the law have made it harder for Travellers to move around. There are fewer legal sites for them to go to.
Some of those living at Dale Farm, such as Brid, ended up there after being evicted from other sites.And some Travellers wanted a permanent address to make it easier to access doctors and for children to go to school.
“If we go somewhere else,” said John, “the police just say it’s illegal to be there and move you on.”
For all the problems, Travellers have fought to make a home on the roadside. Many have doormats and pot plants outside their caravan doors. Washing hangs out to dry on a metal fence that keeps Travellers out of an adjacent field.
Festive decorations adorn the caravans and signs in the windows read, “Merry Christmas”. But many feel far from festive.
“We’re living like we were 40 years ago,” said Pat. “If we lived in a third world country we’d be treated better than this.
“To be treated like this is a joke.”
Building on greenbelt
Basildon council plans to build thousands of houses on nearly 500 hectares of greenbelt land—cutting 7 percent of its greenbelt. Councillors were set to discuss the plans at a meeting on Thursday of next week and a public consultation is set for the New Year.
The plan for 12,000 new homes would allow around 9,100 to be built on greenbelt land. Tory council leader Tony Ball claimed the plan to build on greenbelt was actually aimed at protecting it.
“Allocating a limited release of greenbelt protects the rest of it even more, without allocation the greenbelt is open season for developers,” he said.
There will be no provision for Travellers evicted from Dale Farm for “political reasons”, say Basildon council. The council’s new housing plan includes provision for 121 Traveller pitches over the next 20 years.
This is based on an assessment of Traveller needs in the borough—excluding those evicted from Dale Farm.
If they were included in the provision, the council would need to provide an extra 155 pitches. Tory council leader Tony Ball said, “We are not going to make provision for those formally moved from Dale Farm.”
When asked for the reason behind this, the council’s press office told Socialist Worker, “That is a political decision”.
The council produced a report on its housing plan this month.
It said, “Whilst the advice in ‘Planning Policy for Traveller Sites’ is that local authorities should plan for all those families wishing to reside in their areas, the Council considers that having to plan for 155 pitches as well as the 121 would place an unrealistic burden on the Council.
“Basildon has always argued that the provision of traveller sites is a regional and national issue and not one that should automatically be resolved by those authorities where the families happen to arrive and settle.”
If the council gets away with its plan, other councils can argue that it is too much of a “burden” to provide for Travellers.
It risks leaving more Travellers stranded on the road—where they will be moved on because they are living “illegally”.