Saturday, 21 January 2012

Down on the farm nothing is simple | Alex Thomson's View

Down on the farm nothing is simple

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For a start, there isn’t even an accurate word to describe the people who live there. Gypsies won’t do it – since ethnically they are Irish and some object to the term anyhow. Travellers? Well possibly – but the whole issue here centres upon their wish to live, stay put in east Essex – and not travel very much at all.

dalefarm gates alex 602x200 Down on the farm nothing is simple

But that’s Dale Farm for you – nothing is clear. Nothing is easy. Everything surrounded by a swirl of allegations and standpoints. And all of that argued out for years in various courts. Ending up in agonising high court hearings in London where legal teams and a judge laboured over the legal differences between hard-standing…tarmac…and bunding (rough piles of earth and rubble). it was torture for me just listening and trying to make sense.

“Yeah,” sighs Tony Ball, leader of Basildon Council, “you know I think that was the worst month of my life.”

Down at Dale Farm some – most – of the travellers would probably say the eviction itself was worse, three months ago.

Yet if you go there now you’ll be astonished, not at what has changed, but at how little seems to have been achieved.

Far from ending the illegal encampment of houses and caravans, it has simply moved from the illicit plot charged by riot cops last October, about 30 yards down the road. And there they remain, rows of caravans parked up on the old approach road to the site of the protest and eviction.

21 caravan 620 Down on the farm nothing is simple

Close by, caravans are jammed into the plots of legal houses. These travellers don’t do gardens. Each small house has a large hard-standing of bricks to take several caravans and that is exactly what they all now have. It is overcrowded, illegal under planning laws according to the council.

Officials were there on the day we filmed, carefully counting up the numbers of caravans . Yes, you’ve got it, another vast eviction from here is being planned sometime from next month onwards. Perhaps millions more in public money will be expended.

Already the council has spent £4.2m on moving a group of caravans a matter of a few yards. Then you have to add in the policing bill – and Essex Constabulary remain at the site day in, day out, clocking up the hours, clocking up the meter for the taxpayer.

Gallery: A protest in pictures

And the cleared illegal site itself? An extarordinary morass of earth walls several feet high – “bunding” in council speak – a rampart earthed up around every one of the fifty or so emptied plots. Some are filling up with rain water now.

In one, three traveller children are playing, using a pallet as a raft on the filthy brown water on a Thursday morning in the middle of the school term. Twisted sharp metal and concrete pokes through the earthen walls.

At one end, sewage backs up in the inspection covers near the septic tanks of the first house left untouched by the eviction. It’s not a great place for children to play. But the council says if there’s any health issue nobody has complained and anyhow, people should not let kids play there: “I wouldn’t let my child play in this area – there must be some level of parental responsibility here about this,” says Mr Ball.

Len Gridley sees all this through his garden fence. Once the most vociferous campaigner to get the travellers off the illegal site, he says what the council have done now is worse than the original illegal camp:

“It’s a bomb site. It’s like world war two. Like a bomber has just come over and left craters all over the place.”

It’s come to something when the actions of the council have managed to unite the travellers concerns about the site with those of their loudest critic – but that’s how it is here three months on.

21 Dale 620 Down on the farm nothing is simple

“We want a site that’s culturally-sensitive to travellers’ needs and that’s it. We don’t want bricks and mortar – just to be given a site and left in peace. We have nowhere else to go,” says Michelle Sheridan whose current caravan is not a hundred yards from her former home, now one of Len Gridleys ‘second world war craters’.

The council insists this is all temporary. There’ll be another wave of expensive expulsions from the second illegal site the travellers have moved to — and the original cleared site will be returned to the greenbelt land it once was.

Oh no they won’t, say travellers’ advisors and campaigners. They plan an appeal in the courts to get back onto the old site at Dale Farm and rebuild with the protection of the law once and for all.

Oh no they won’t counters Basildon Council for whom this is some kind of Alamo – defend at all costs.The council says it’s fighting for councils across the UK. If they go down on this one and retreat and allow people to flaunt the law, then no council will be able to deal honestly with a single planning application.

As ever there is truth and lack of candour from all sides. The council talks about a kind of crusade to uphold the law yet has a worse mess on its hands now then when it started out on this business.

The travellers talk about discrimination and being outcasts and suffering, as they cruise around in gleaming 4 x 4 jeeps, shiny new BMWs, Mercs and even the odd Porsche.

As ever, down on the farm nothing is quite what anybody says it is. The problem the nation thought had gone away three months ago – has in fact, only just begun.

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