Mass Gypsy eviction looms in Essex

Dale Farm residents warn of "ethnic cleansing".

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

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.