Is there money to burn in Basildon?

Aerial view of the Dale Farm travellers's siteBBC iPlayer: The Big Gypsy Eviction

This programme was on BBC1 last night (you can watch it until next Thursday, if you are in the UK) and is the result of six years of filming at a Gypsy site near Basildon, Essex, and the nearby village. The Dale Farm site is an illegal Gypsy and traveller encampment, built on land the occupiers own but which is “green belt” land, i.e. it’s not supposed to be built or lived on. The council voted to evict them in 2005, but since then the travellers have fought a long legal battle but have exhausted all their legal avenues and a final, 28-day notice to quit has been issued. The travellers have placed gas canisters at the entrance and insist that they will fight any attempted eviction.

Towards the end of yesterday’s programme, it was noted that Basildon district council had voted to spend some £8million on the eviction, which amounted to a third of its annual budget. The presenter did not question where this money would come from and whether the council had more or less money to spend in general than any other council. At a time when services such as libraries, social services and home care for the elderly and disabled, are being cut (the county council, for example, plan to close all of their children’s homes), £8m is a colossal amount of money to spend on moving a group of people who have nowhere else to go, and who would almost certainly settle (illegally) somewhere else, quite possibly very nearby.

I have heard accusations that the travellers are lawless and violent, and have in the past defaced the building with excrement, but this matter was not raised in the programme other than showing footage of a nearby landowner, Len Gridley, reading an anonymous poem in a pub about how the law doesn’t seem to apply to the “pikey bloke”. They claimed that no locals were willing to talk on camera except for him; meanwhile, the only travellers who were willing to appear were women (the men refused, claiming it would jeopardise their chances of getting work). The fear may be real, or it may be a trick to paint the travellers in a negative light. So, we got the impression of a community of very religious Irish women and a group of bigoted locals concerned that their property prices were being lowered. (Ewan MacColl’s Moving On Song, also known as Go, Move, Shift!, notes that the same thing was said to gypsies when moving them on in the fifties and earlier.)

Surely, if there was such a major problem with criminality emanating from the gypsy site, they would have found some evidence of it, such as newspaper reports, or an interview with someone from the local paper, or any concrete accusation of a serious crime, beyond littering, even from Gridley — but there was not. It is also nearly certain that any eviction will result in disruption to the children’s education, as being there a long time will have given at least some of them a chance to be in school for some time, which is impossible when on the road (one went to college, but has since died in an accident).

The programme did not feature any interview with anyone from the council, and thus we did not really find out whether the issue was purely about the illegal occupation of green-belt land combined with prejudice or whether the travellers really are a menace to the local population. If the former, then the eviction is an act of persecution against a minority population which have been part of the fabric of this country for centuries; if the latter, the guilty parties need to be brought to book and locked up, rather than turned out onto the road so that they can become someone else’s problem. In any case, at a time when budgets are being cut to the bone, for a local council to be spending millions on destroying a village seems like an awful waste of money.

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