OPEN LETTER TO BASILDON COUNCIL
ON PLANS TO BULLDOZE DALE FARM
Even at this late stage there is an opportunity for you to seek an alternative to what you refer to as “clearances” at Dale Farm. I am sure that by now, many of you will have visited the Hovefields site, some of you may have felt a sense of satisfaction when you saw the cleared site. Unfortunately while the chalets, trailers, sheds and caravans may have disappeared, the people who lived in them still exist.
The people were dispersed during the action commencing 7th September, in the knowledge that there are no temporary, authorised stopping places in Essex, no vacancies on Essex Co.Council authorised sites and no authorised, alternative private site had been identified for them to purchase.
I was present on 7th September when the initial departures took place, I did not witness any assessment being carried out by ECC Social Workers as to the special needs of members of the convoy of 4 caravans + towing vehicles. In fact 2 of the women were pregnant, 2 others unable to drive towing vehicles , there were 4 children under 10 years and 1 teenager with learning difficulties. Only the short-term assistance of relatives who had come from Nottingham, enabled two of the older women`s caravans to be taken off the site.
The subsequent serving of s.61 Criminal Justice Act 1994, by Essex Police on 3 occasions within 16 hours commencing at 7.45pm 8th September, forcing the convoy to move on, was in my view, with reckless disregard to the physical and mental state of the evictees and the fitness of the drivers. In the following week a midwife had to be called to a lay- by to attend one of the pregnant women(not a Traveller herself and therefore completely unprepared for the reality of eviction actions), who required an emergency scan. You may consider that this account of what happened to a small group is not your concern but I do think you need to be aware of the consequences of one “minor” eviction action before deciding to carry out the far larger action at Dale Farm.
I attend the quarterly meetings of the Traveller Forum at The Downtowner in Wickford. I am therefore aware of the excellent work carried out by Education, Health, Fire & Rescue Service, Libraries, Gypsy& Traveller Unit and Police professionals in building trust and increasing take-up of services among the Traveller community.
This work will be significantly undermined by the eviction of some 300 people from Dale Farm. Dispersal will make the whole slow process of improving health and educational outcomes for these Travellers more difficult and costly. I do think that it would be useful if Basildon Council staff were represented at the Forum meetings, unfortunately their absence contributes to the image of the Council as being primarily interested in enforcement actions rather than the welfare of some of the Borough`s most vulnerable members.
As a volunteer advocate for some of the Dale Farm residents in the Homelessness process, I know that the Council Housing staff have acted with professionalism and respect towards the applicants. Unfortunately all this good work which has been acknowledged by many Travellers, will have been a waste of Council staff resources if the final decision is to reject the Travellers`request for an authorised site rather than “bricks & mortar” housing.
I know that Council staff have made great efforts to manage the complex Homelessness procedures. There does however seem to be a disconnect between the Housing dept. and the Planning/Enforcement dept. The Housing dept. sent a letter to a Traveller at her Hovefields address on 13th Sept. informing her that although deemed eligible and homeless she was not considered in priority need, enclosed with the letter was a report detailing medical and social circumstances of a confidential nature.
The Traveller had been evicted on 7th September and her plot reduced to rubble. I know this as a copy of the letter was sent to me. I myself received a letter dated 12th October, informing me that a review panel would consider the decision on my homelessness application by 7th December and another volunteer advocate has received a similar notice; this confusion gives some indication of the pressures this whole process has placed on your staff. Please do not undermine all your own staff`s efforts by taking enforcement action.
Finally as a Wickford resident since 1978 and a Council tax-payer I am concerned about the mounting legal and enforcement costs of Traveller site “clearances”. I am a volunteer with several community organisations including the Talking Newspaper, Phoenix Interview Skills programme in the Borough`s senior schools, Essex Wildlife Trust at Hanningfield as well as various roles within Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic parish.
I mention these only to underline that I am very aware of the funding efforts all community groups have to make to continue their work. The Traveller community makes a generous contribution to our parish projects both local and international, they also participate in the spiritual and social life of the parish which gives the lie to the frequent assertion that Travellers are resistant to being part of the wider community.
Councillor Ball`s suggestion that the Church offer land for use as an alternative site for Dale Farm residents (Evening Echo Nov.9th), is somewhat ingenuous given the nation-wide difficulty planning applications for Traveller sites encounter. The idea also sidesteps the real issue of the national shortage of sites. The Dale Farm Travellers are not asking for charity or patronage, only for the right to live with planning permission on their own land in safety and security.
I would ask you to abandon the eviction option with its socially disruptive, financially reckless and strategically ineffective implications and instead consider enhancing Basildon`s image nationally and internationally, as a progressive, inclusive local authority. You can do this by either:
Granting special retrospective planning authorisation to the current unauthorised part of Dale Farm, or
Granting planning permission to an alternative site within the Borough, possibly through negotiation with the Homes & Communities Agency), which has offered extensive land for this purpose.
Please take this opportunity to make a win- win decision for the Borough,