Dale Farm is Europe’s largest illegal traveller settlement. After almost ten years of legal wrangling Basildon council has resolved to clear the site once and for all. As you may know, Basildon Council was on the brink of ordering that clearance on September 19th when a court challenge suspended the action. As I write this, we are still in the High Court, arguing for the right to proceed.
We have spent a decade trying to avoid confrontation with the residents of 54 pitches illegally developed on six acres of greenbelt land in Basildon, but simultaneously preparing exhaustively for the day it might come. Despite all that planning, the last fortnight has proven a steep learning curve. Let me tell you about five things I have learned during our fight to clear Europe’s largest illegal traveller settlement. I believe they are important to a wider audience because Dale Farm isn't just a Basildon issue. It is about upholding the law that governs us all and protects the environment. As a Conservative council leader, it is my basic instinct to do that in a transparent and fair way.
My five points for Conservatives drawn from the Dale Farm experience are:
- We need localism more than ever. Clear support for the clearance from Basildon’s residents – demonstrated by successive election victories – has surely given us the mandate to proceed with this action. The Localism Bill provides for local referenda to reinforce this democratic will even further.
- We need a British Bill of Rights, as outlined by David Cameron in the manifesto. This would surely help local authorities in the face of opponents ready to manipulate Euro human rights legislation.
- Do not underestimate the ability of protest groups to find obscure legal routes to challenge the local authority. The start of the clearance operation on the 19th September was derailed under a legal challenge brought by a travellers’ representative in a court where Basildon Council was not even allowed to put its side.
- You need to keep explaining to residents that you are on their side and understand their deep frustration. In Crays Hill, some residents are so angry they have threatened not to pay Council Tax. I don't believe the council is their real target; they are simply at their wits' end with a system that seems to condone law breaking. You need to keep your own people on side.
- Keep explaining to the media and the wider world why what you are doing is fair. The traveller lobby have sought to turn this issue into a fundamental row over lifestyle choice. It isn’t; it’s a planning row. Don’t allow your opponents to claim the seductive moral higher ground.
I have no dispute with the traveller community – indeed, Basildon provides more pitches than any area in the east of England and almost more than anywhere in the country. What I do take exception to is the lack of respect among some of the travellers and their self-appointed champions for the law. As Conservatives, we respect the rule of law built up in this country over centuries of precedent. We sign up to all of it, rather than a “pick and mix” approach to those parts of living in the UK that personally suit our agenda.
The travellers’ determination to camouflage what this dispute is really about is evident in their media pronouncements. Recently, the travellers have taken to employing the language of industrial relations disputes: I am exhorted to “get back round the table” and allow a “common sense” settlement. No mention of the fact that the travellers could have come to our negotiating table any time in the last ten years to agree a settlement to this dispute. The travellers have knowingly broken the law; they are not striking for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Hopefully all of this will ultimately prove to be a noisy sideshow. In legal terms, we believe we are entering the end game and, while the wheels of justice may grind slow, they are grinding forward.
This is not a confrontation I relish or have sought. It has diverted substantial resources that we could spend elsewhere and proven a huge drain on officer time.
I hope, even at this late stage, the travellers will leave peacefully. But if not, then we are determined that this clearance will go ahead. It is what local people want and, if localism is really to have teeth, then their will should be done.