Around 30 miles east of central London, one of the largest evictions in recent British history is looming. More than 90 families at Dale Farm, Europe's biggest gypsy site, expect to be served with a 28-day enforcement notice any day now, after the Home Office earlier this month awarded a £4.65m special grant to Essex Police to assist with an eviction that could cost as much as £17.5m.
The history of Dale Farm is long and has been fraught with tension over the last decade. One section of the farm has been occupied legally by Gypsies since the 1960s, but in 2002 conflict arose when a number of Irish Traveller families moved on to a patch of land next the legal site.
Though they had purchased the land, they were refused planning permission by Basildon Council on the grounds that it was on the green belt. The council has since been embroiled in a battle to remove around 52 properties from the section of the farm without planning permission.
According to the travellers, although the land is classed as green belt, it was a concreted scrapyard before they moved on to it. They say they each pay on average £950 in council tax per year, and allege that the refusal to grant them planning permission, far from being anything to do with the green belt, is driven by an undercurrent of prejudice from local politicians.
"What we've always objected to is that they're treating us as a block of people -- travellers -- to be evicted en masse as an ethnic group," says 72-year-old Grattan Puxon, secretary of the Dale Farm Residents Association. "That's why we call it ethnic cleansing."
Puxon, who helped found the Gypsy Council in 1966, says the residents association recently sent Basildon Council detailed reports on the welfare and medical status of each person who would be affected by the eviction. Their hope was that exceptions would be made for those who were elderly, unwell or with young children.
"We sent them the medical reports of 300 people, including a bedridden old man on the point of death; another 80-year-old man; a woman with triplets; a young mother who recently had a miscarriage; and numerous very small children," he says. "The committee was given 40 minutes to consider all these reports -- about eight seconds per report. Having done that they said they couldn't find any exceptions."
In 2008, a High Court judgment ruled that the eviction would be legal, though expressed concern that the site would be disproportionately "cleared" with little concern for children and those in ill-health.
Two years later, in 2010, a letter was sent directly to the UK government from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It urged the government and its institutions to "consider suspending any planned eviction until an adequate solution is achieved".
Concern has also been raised about the bailiffs hired by Basildon Council to carry out the eviction. Constant & Co, who describe themselves as a "one-stop shop" for the clearance of traveller sites, were criticised by a High Court judge for "unacceptable" conduct after one previous Gypsy eviction in 2004, and were present during a separate incident the same year when a caravan was set on fire. Calls to Constant & Co for a comment went unheeded. However a spokesperson for Basildon Council said the council had used the company in the past and that there had been "no issues".
There will be "no burning of any items on site during the operation," according to the council, who will pay Constant & Co an estimated figure of over £2m for their services, with a further £6m set aside for other costs. At the same time, last year the council announced they were looking to make £505,000 cuts to services and were also braced for up to 100 job losses. On top of the council's £8m, an additional £9.5m has been made available for policing costs, almost half of which has been raised by central government.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said ministers agreed to fund policing the eviction only after advice from Essex Police was "carefully considered" by government ministers. While addressing human rights concerns, Basildon Council said they had already given an undertaking to the High Court providing for the health, education and care needs of the families affected, and staunchly refuted any claims of racial prejudice.
"The proposed site clearance at Dale Farm is driven by the need to uphold planning law and nothing more, a decision upheld by the courts," said the council's Conservative leader, Councillor Tony Ball. "To suggest otherwise is simply wrong, irresponsible and shows a lack of understanding for the situation."
For the 90 or so families at Dale Farm, the weeks ahead will be crucial.
They are currently seeking a judicial review of the eviction, and the moment they are served with their 28-day enforcement notice will form what they call Camp Constant -- a "non-violent defence" that will include a human shield around the area to be evicted. If the judicial review fails, not only will a serious confrontation with bailiffs and police be inevitable, but the future for many families at Dale Farm will be rendered uncertain.
"Even although alternative land has been identified, until planning permission is granted they will have nowhere lawful to move to," said Keith Lomax, the solicitor acting on behalf of Dale Farm.
"There are residents who have such significant personal circumstances -- including serious medical problems -- that it is manifestly unreasonable and disproportionate in human rights terms to put them out onto the road."
Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here