I don’t know whether the goings-on at Dale Farm have reached the outside world, but it’s big news here in the UK. It concerns a group of settled Travellers (as is the proper way to refer to Gypsies) in Essex. They bought some land about 40 years ago, and built houses on it. Then, over time, they took over the disused scrap yard next door to their land, bought it, and built houses on that as well.
Now, the official reason for all the hoo-haa is that the scrap yard land is really “green belt”, and therefore has certain planning restrictions. The Travellers never got planning permission to build there, and so now they’re being evicted from the land. If this had been anyone else, I suspect the eviction would have happened, and everyone would have moved on by now. But because these are Travellers, with their own way of doing things, it’s blown up into a rather sordid affair.
Firstly, they’re demanding that they be provided alternative accommodation (which is perfectly fair in this sort of situation). The council has offered housing in Basildon, but that’s not suitable for the Travellers, who like to be out in the country, as their culture and way of life demands. Hmmm… not much council housing out in the country then.
Secondly, there’s a race card being held in nearly everyone’s hand just itching to be played at every opportunity. Travellers are almost universally unpopular, and nimby attitudes are quick to shut doors in their faces. While everyone would agree that everybody should live within the law, people backing the Travellers would claim that the laws a biased against them due to their lifestyle. In the past, local councils used to be obliged to provide sites for up to 15 caravans, to be used by Travellers. This fell away about 15 years ago, and slowly, those have disappeared. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason for this was the cost involved in cleaning them up on a regular basis. Stories abound of Traveller sites being left in a shocking state when the caravans go. (I’ve had personal experience of this, when an open piece of land on a bend of a river was occupied by them in Dublin near where we lived, and thoroughly trashed.)
Against that background, Channel 4 produced a documentary earlier this year (My Big Gypsy Wedding) which did a bit to glamorise the whole Traveller lifestyle. While it did point out some of the undesirable elements of their culture, it generally glossed over most of it, and probably did quite a bit to build a bit of sympathy for them.
And then, you can always rely on the UK media to fan this eviction into a frenzy. The backwards and forwards of legalities between the Travellers and the Council has been going on for years, and even up to the day that the evictions were due to start, there was another temporary reprieve. And there are tabloids who will trumpet each side with abandon. In all of this, there are those who will take the side against the government and for the Little People no matter what the cause. In this case, there were girls as young as 18 chaining themselves up to the gate in such a way that if it were forcibly broken down, they’d be strangled. Likewise, there are those on the other side, who would be quite happy if all the Irish Travellers were sent back to Ireland (where a lot of them apparently have property, despite their claims of homelessness), and all the Romany Travellers were, well, sent somewhere else.
And yet, in between those two extremes, there are a lot of people like me – who coudn’t really be bothered about it all. While I’m probably more passionate about green belt than the next guy (being almost surrounded by it), I can’t see that letting an old scrapyard be built on instead of returned to nature is going to have a huge impact. While I’m slightly biased against the Travellers based on my personal experience, I’m happy that they stick with their way of life, and go about their own business, as long as they do it peacefully and orderly. And I’m hardly in a position as an immigrant to make any strong stand about this sort of thing anyway.
But it’s fun to watch events like this take shape – they provide a wonderful petri dish to observe the various elements of English society in laboratory conditions. Throw in a few conservatives, a few hardcore hippy liberals, a pinch of catalyst in the shape of a socially divisive ethnic group, and watch the sparks fly.
Update: Tim Minchin made a quotable comment on this on “8 out of 10 Cats” recently – “All we ask of Travellers is to travel.”