There is anger and resentment on both sides as the bailiffs prepare to make their move at Europe’s largest gipsy site.Down a narrow lane and beyond the pile of old tyres and barbed-wire-wrapped scaffolding that marks the entrance to Dale Farm, a knot of men in T-shirts are standing shaking their heads and gesticulating.
Close by, a dozen or so women, hair raked back in ponytails, toddlers at their brightly painted toes, are clustered around a silver Mondeo. All are listening intently to a local radio station that is also blaring out of almost every caravan, car and chalet on each pot-holed track of this ramshackle site, the largest traveller site in Europe, near the village of Crays Hill in Essex.
“I’m very angry,” one woman shouts, face screwed up and emotions unchecked. “Why is that lady on the radio putting out all that c--p about us? I have three children. Where am I going to go?”
The immediate source of provocation is Radio Essex, which is running a phone-in on the 10-year battle between Basildon council and the travellers who have been living here illegally since 2001.
Understandably, the travellers don’t take too kindly to the locals ringing in to say they should “go back to Ireland”, and calling them, “a bunch of people who are trying to avoid paying tax and ignoring the rules of the land’’. But the real tension is caused by the knowledge that, for many of those who have made their homes here, time is running out. Tomorrow, a 28-day notice issued by Basildon council requiring them to vacate the site will expire. Judges at the High Court will hear a plea for a last-minute injunction against eviction. If this fails – it follows a tortuous process involving a tumult of appeals and judicial reviews, pronouncements from Amnesty International and the UN, and a BBC documentary (entitled, inevitably, My Big Fat Gypsy Eviction) – the bailiffs will finally be free to move in to restore this land to green belt.
What will happen when they do?
The answer is keenly anticipated by all those who have ever had an unwanted, and illegal, gipsy or traveller camp on their doorstep, as well as anyone who lives near a temptingly empty field. Travellers have a track record of invading and colonising such spots – often over public holidays when council offices are closed – and of bringing in mechanical diggers and laying concrete bases for their mobile homes in a matter of hours and then exploiting the impossible slowness of bureaucratic procedures to stay.
The facts are these. There has been an authorised traveller site, with permission for 34 pitches, here since the mid-Nineties. Ten years ago, a six-acre plot – Dale Farm – next to this site was bought by two English gipsies who subdivided it into plots and sold them on to other travellers. Today Dale Farm resembles a small derelict estate, with tarmac and gravel tracks, brick walls, railings topped with barbed wire, caravans, chalets and gateposts sporting elaborate finials. Around 240 people live here but Dale Farm does not have, and has never had, planning permission for any of its 51 pitches.
The travellers claim that, although the land is green belt, it was never a prized beauty spot. “It wasn’t all babbling brooks and big oak trees when we moved here,” says Bridget McCarthy. “It was a broken down scrapyard.” (The council confirms that a corner of the land had been used, without permission, as a scrapyard since the Sixties).
“How long did it take us to clear it?” continues Bridget. “Three weeks,” shouts someone else in the group jostling around me.
It’s certainly true that the camp is tucked away, out of sight of most of its neighbours. Of those who live on Oak Road, which backs on to it, only one has made vocal complaints. Three other families I speak to shrug and say that they don’t notice it’s there, but two others shake their heads and refuse to comment. Their reticence may have something to do with the fact that the one local who has made a very public fuss has received death threats. “If we go, he goes,” some travellers told film-maker Richard Parry.
But that’s not to say the presence of Dale Farm hasn’t made an impact. The local primary, Crays Hill, is now almost exclusively a travellers’ school; 107 of the 110 registered pupils are from the travelling community. They don’t always turn up for class – the Ofsted report cites “significantly below average attendance levels” – and tend to lag behind their peers academically. Local parents have felt pressured into bussing their children out of the area to other schools.
The proximity of Dale Farm has also wiped tens of thousands of pounds off property prices. On a nearby street, where houses are worth £500,000 to £600,000, one resident estimates that the value of his house has dropped by “around £100,000’’.
He says: ''My wife and I would have moved by now otherwise, but we can’t, unless we take a hit and move into somewhere smaller.” Another neighbour said: “The council reclassified all our council tax bands because of it; mine went down from a G to an F.” But property prices and the eyesore on their doorstep isn’t what really antagonises the locals. What most upsets them is a deep sense of injustice.
“It’s people who flout the law of the land when it should apply equally to everyone,” says Terry, who lives nearby with his wife Pam. His words echo those of David Cameron who spoke of, “the sense of unfairness that one law applies to everybody else and, on too many occasions, another law applies to travellers.” Others tell me that they feel that letting those on Dale Farm get away with it, will, “open the floodgates to who knows what’’.
Overturning what has happened here is proving expensive: the council have had to set aside £8 million to clear the site, but there is a strong feeling this is necessary to ensure that the law is upheld both now and in the future.
Basildon council is keen to stress that, “This is a planning row.” That’s not quite how they see things over on Dale Farm. One woman tells me she has been so stressed that she smashed all her windows.
What, of your own home? “Yes, every single one of them,” says Margaret Flynn, a 29-year-old mother of three who lives in an immaculate caravan. She predicts that any clearance will bring a death: “Every time talk of an eviction starts, someone dies.”
Candy Sheridan, a member of the Gipsy Council and a Liberal Democrat councillor in north Norfolk where she now lives, is a more reasoned voice. “This is political,” she insists, “Councillors always say no to us [when we ask for planning permission], it doesn’t matter what it is, or what party they’re from. They always vote against us because they want to be re-elected.”
Candy was born on a site in Bristol and says she has lived “up and down the M4 and all over England’’. Her parents were Irish travellers who came to London in 1958. ''The difference between them and me is that I went to school. And back then they made us do speech therapy, so I have no trace of my Irish accent,” she smiles wryly, and adds that it means she makes more headway on the phone when trying to sort out a planning application or a viewing of some land on someone else’s behalf.
She feels travellers are misunderstood. “It’s not a level playing field for us,” she says. She talks about the strong sense of community that is under threat at Dale Farm. Travellers look after each other, she says. Levels of adult literacy are low, so a few must read and write for the rest. Inter-marriage means the camp is, in every sense, a huge extended family – there are a lot of McCarthys and Sheridans – so children, the elderly and the sick are well cared for. This might explain why there is so much nervousness about being split up and sent to live in “bricks-and-mortar” council flats. Ironically, there are some elements of Mr Cameron’s Big Society to be seen in action here.
The trouble is that there isn’t the same consideration for the rights and wishes of those who aren’t travellers. A wily few of the travelling community have become adept at exploiting legislation that’s intended to protect those who’ve been hard done by, and where they lead the others follow. What will happen next week? There is fighting talk from some travellers who are threatening to fill ditches with petrol.
On Friday evening I took a call from a man who said he was phoning on behalf of Candy Sheridan. He told me the travellers had examined the emergency contingency plans put in place by surrounding counties to deal with any possible fallout from the Dale Farm clearance and that Suffolk seemed to have one of the best deals.
“If everyone at Dale Farm got in their caravans and drove towards Suffolk,” he told me, “I think they would find a field waiting for them.” Suffolk, you have been warned.