Dale Farm a year on- a case study in social exclusion…

 

12 months ago, the above site was big news in Britain. Dale Farm, neat Basildon had been the site of decades of legal battles over the use of land owned by Travelling people from  a Romany background. It formed a tight well organised community of families from an ethnic group of people whose traditional way of life has been increasingly squeezed within UK society.

The local Basildon council spent £7.2 million evicting families from the empty half of the site above. They say they did it to uphold planning laws, and in response to wider community concerns about criminality, noise and unhygienic conditions.

Today a Parliamentary report has been made public investigating the effects of the traumatic eviction. This from the Guardian;

Scores of Travellers removed from the Dale Farm site near Basildon in Essex 12 months ago have suffered mental or physical illness after being forced to live in “squalor” following the controversial eviction, according to a report by MPs.

It said: “The delegation found that many of the residents are highly vulnerable and have serious conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, osteoporosis, Crohn’s disease, bowel cancer, Down’s syndrome etc.

“Members of the Red Cross again stated their continued concerns regarding the physical and mental health of the Travellers, lack of sanitation and the possible health threats posed by the evicted site.”

Issues like this divide opinion. For some, the Travellers had it coming to them. Their lifestyle is unsustainable, morally bankrupt and an insult to hard working people. The conditions that they find themselves are due to choices they have made. Such opinions would usually be accompanied by stories of some encounter with a travelling group squatting in filth on a roadside verge, or doing some poor tarmac work on the driveway of a pensioner.

There is another story here however- a cautionary tale of what happens to marginalised groups in the face of prejudice, stigma and scape goating.  This kind of poverty is brutal, and we should not be surprised that it also brutalises.

Neither should we be surprised that such marginalisation and social exclusions results in poor mental and physical health.

Dale Farm is a stain on who we are and I hope may yet be the point when things turn for the better for travelling folk in the country. Perhaps the point at which we start to seek to understand the other rather than condemn them for not being like us.

I posted this previously, as a reminder of the rich traditions of the Romany people in these islands;

 

Dale Farm..

I watched Panorama tonight- telling the story of the mass eviction of a community of Travelling families from the site at Dale Farm.

If you are unaware of the background to this story, it involved the establishment of a settlement on privately owned land- leading to around 800 travelling people setting up permanent living arrangements- caravans, mobile homes. However, the site was established without planning permission, in the shadow of a sleepy affluent English village. Ten years of negotiations, court battles and exchanges of vitriol and hate followed.

On the one side, the outraged locals, who pointed to high crime rates, threats of violence and unruly behaviour. These folk have the rule of law on their side- and the local County Council. On the other side are travelling folk, whose leadership (if the Panorama film is to believed) is provided by a number of matriarchs. The Travellers are supported by an assortment of activists, from all ages and works of life.

It ended predictably- riot shields, rocks hurled at police, diggers smashing barricades. The Travellers lost their homes and were forced back out onto the road.

Stories like this polarise us too. Power wielded against the marginalised in the name of the rule of law will always feel (to me) WRONG.  But neither can we blame those whose job it was to enforce the will of the court- who had to face their own trial of violence.

The issues for me are much longer standing. We have well over a thousand years history of regarding Tinkers/Gypsies/Romanies/Travellers as dangerous thieving, untrustworthy and less than human. There is absolutely no doubt that this has resulted in prejudice and even direct persecution.

That is not to say that there is no criminality within the Travelling community- but they follow a way of life that has been criminalised.

One of the most striking aspects of the Dale Farm situation is that Travellers have so few alternatives to illegal sites. There used to be law on the statute which obligated each and every local authority to provide designated travelling sites. These sites (where they remain) are not without their problems- but do at least offer safe  places for families to settle for a while, and receive health and education. However, this law was repealed in 2004- by the then Conservative government, responding to another middle England tabloid backlash against New Age Travellers.

Many councils closed their sites.

The end result is that at any time, there are estimated to be around 3500 caravans with no legal place to stop. The options they face are to abandon their way of life and move into social housing (which many have done) or continue with a life that constantly skirts the edge of legality.

As a matter of interest to those of you from a particular Christian background that there has been a charismatic revival sweeping through the Travelling community over the last few years. There is more about this in this book.

As revealed in the Panorama programme, these communities are not without their problems- but nevertheless are communities characterised by very strong social norms, and sense of identity.

Something to celebrate perhaps, rather than to try to squash?