The case of the 400 Irish Travellers illegally camped at Dale Farm in Essex and who are set to be forcibly evicted following the exhaustion of their legal appeals, shines a rare spotlight on to the lives of traveller communities.
The contested six-acre plot of greenbelt they inhabit (and which the travellers themselves own) was formerly a scrap yard before they moved onto it in 2001. Throughout this period, local Basildon council has been trying to uphold planning law and remove them.
Although the site is adjacent to a legal traveller encampment, it is too small to house the Dale Farm community. Their eviction will therefore leave them to the mercies of the open road, with no nearby alternative provision.
This will mean breaking up the tightly-knit extended families that currently live together and forcing traveller children from nearby schools.
While there is a balance to be struck between the interests of the travellers and the legitimate concerns of local residents, the broader experience is one where traveller and gypsy communities still face open hostility and discrimination that simply would not be countenanced against any other minority group.
Rather like Indian Dalits, they have become our ‘untouchables’, vilified for their unwanted presence and cruelly parodied for their lifestyle.
Over in the Daily Telegraph, onetime arch-lefty networker turned Conservative cheerleader, Cristina Odone, describes Irish Travellers as “troublesome land-grabbers” and claims their status as a distinct ethnic grouping is a “fiction”. Her equally kneejerk colleague, Ed West, goes further – belittling the travellers’ ethnic status as “a scam”.
Responding to the claim they have been part of the British agricultural tradition for 500 years he scoffs:
“Of course, because caravan sites and scrapyards always feature in Turner’s bucolic portraits of the British countryside.”
Despite such snide and ill-informed attacks, the Department for Communities and Local Government recognises the problems travelling communities face:
“Gypsies and travellers face the most serious disadvantages of all ethnic minority groups with a much shorter life expectancy, low income and poor access to finance. Their children have high mortality rates and the lowest educational attainment.”
Commenting on the historical failure to provide enough sites for Britain’s estimated 300,000 travellers, DCLG adds:
“Top-down traveller site provision targets have failed to deliver – a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report estimated that at current rates of permanent pitch provision it would take 18 years to hit targets set for 2011.”
Yet despite acknowledging some of the problems travelling communities face, ministers are set to worsen their plight with ‘light-touch guidance’ to local authorities about their responsibilities in maintaining sites and will introduce:
“Stronger planning enforcement powers to help local authorities deal with breaches of planning control…”
Essex County Council, which is responsible for the education and social services of the Dale Farm traveller families, boasts on its “Service for Gypsies and Travellers” webpage that it has a “robust range of services and support available”. In reality, this appears to be little more than a series of links relating to enforcement policies.
An unfair emphasis given DCLG figures show more than four out of five travellers live on authorised sites.
This only serves as a microcosm of the wider problem; with Travellers framed as a ‘problem’ to be managed, rather than people who deserve basic respect and access to decent services. There is no mention on the county council site about any health or welfare services or any guidance about how to access them. This is especially galling as the Irish Travellers and Gypsies suffer from positively medieval health inequalities and a markedly reduced life expectancy that should shame any decent society.
A report from the Diocese of Dublin three years ago found a staggering 80 per cent of Irish Travellers die before they reach 65, with a third dead before they reach 25 – levels on a par with the worst parts of Africa.
Irish Travellers are categorised as a separate ethnic grouping in the census. Their distinct lifestyle, traditions and culture makes them so. This obliges statutory agencies like local councils and health authorities to shape services to meet their needs. However ethnic monitoring is notoriously patchy, with ‘White’ minority communities often missing out from ‘colour blind’ officialdom.
Meanwhile, back at Dale Farm, Basildon Borough Council naively insists the matter is a “planning issue” rather than a “humanitarian” problem, as the Catholic Bishop of Brentwood, Thomas McMahon, described it on a visit to the site earlier this week.
Forcibly evicting these families and bulldozing their homes and amenities is simply putting a social problem out onto the road on four wheels; as traveller and mother-of-two Mary O’Brien, who has lived on the site for 10 years, put it:
“All this will do is move us 50 yards down the road and it will be a huge waste of public money.”
Yet Basildon Council remains resolute, willing to countenance spending £8 million on the eviction. A statement from council leader, Tony Ball, insists they have spent “ten years trying to avoid a forced clearance”.
It is a shame they have not spent the last decade looking at more imaginative solutions that might have avoided the need to do so.