Grattan Puxon


In a hostile editorial, the local newspaper called yesterday the defining moment of the long campaign to save Dale Farm, Britain's biggest Travellers' community, from final destruction.

The editor of the ECHO said what it called "the relentless breaking of the law" by families who for years have ignored planning rules was now on the brink of being rewarded on the orders of the Deputy Prime Minister through provision of an alternative site.

On the same day, a judge in the high court granted permission for the Commission for Racial Equality to join Travellers in an application for a judicial review of Basildon council's decision to demolish 86 homes at Dale Farm and evict the 600 residents.

Intervention by the UK Government and the government-sponsored commission certainly represents a decisive turning point. It now appears unlikely that a forced eviction will take place - at least in the foreseeable future.

However, Travellers' spokesman Richard Sheridan fears that in the long-run yard-owners at Dale Farm may lose their present homes. It is clear Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is bent on persuading families to abandon Dale Farm and move to another piece of land on the other
side of town.

Prescot has pointed out to the council that 3.5 hectares of land are available at Pitsea. This is currently owned by English Partnership, a re-generation agency, which could lease or sell the site to Travellers for development as a caravan park.

This possibility, while welcome, has placed yard-owners at Dale Farm in a quandary. They would prefer to obtain planning permission for the homes already created and are preparing for a major appeal next February against Basildon council's refusal  to grant them a retrospective licence.

Ultimately, however, the legalising of Dale Farm, which has cost Travellers upwards of two million euro to develope, rests with John Prescott. One might argue that if he has set  his mind on a move to Pitsea he is unlikely to grant permanent planning permission for Dale Farm.

But this reasoning, logical as it is, does not take into account the opposition of residents at Pitsea to the arrival of 600 Travellers in their village. Basildon council, the local residents association and Neighbourhood Watch (an anti-crime group) have all said they will not tolerate Prescott's Pitsea plan.

Tory council head Malcolm Buckley, keen to conceal motives which CRE has branded as racist, has called the Pitsea site, on industrial land at Terminus Drive, "unfit for human habitation." It is barely a kilometre from a garbage dump and sewage works.

In addition, the proposed location falls within the constituency of arch anti-Gypsy MP John Baron. He says the plan is a panic reaction that would set a dangerous precedent by rewarding those who have broken planning laws.

Ironically, this fierce opposition will almost certainly have the effect of prolonging the life of Dale Farm. It could take several years to sort out the issues involved, including local consultation, at least one public inquiry and eventual planning consent, on appeal, through Prescott's department.

Meanwhile, the high court has yet to set a date for the judicial review and Prescott is delaying his verdict on earlier planning appeals by some eleven yard-owners at Dale Farm. That decision was originally expected in October.

No one can predict whether Terminus Drive will prove to be the final resting place of Dale Farm
Travellers. The Sheridan clan, which has been on the road for centuries, appears to have quite a
distance to travel yet - in political terms if not measured miles.

Right now it is hard to say whether this dramatic government intervention represents a rescue package or belated betrayal. After all Dale Farm was built on a scrap yard and cannot be turned back into true greenbelt. Besides, English Partnership is involved with a large scale housing scheme close by on the A127 trunk road.

To some it could look as though Prescott, far from rewarding law-breaking Travellers, is offering a solution which ignores the racist motivation behind Buckley's refusal to grant planning permission in the first place.

"All we can do is focus on the judicial review," says Richard Sheridan. "Our homes are at  stake."