Hundreds of travellers, many with small children, were left "desperate" and dismayed today after being told they face being moved forcibly from their homes after a ruling by the Court of Appeal.
The decision is the culmination of a long and bitter row between the Essex residents surrounding the country's largest traveller encampment, who accuse their unwelcome neighbours of bringing crime and anti-social behaviour to the area, and the travellers, who are adamant they are victims of prejudice and victimisation.
Dr Keith Lomax, who represented the travellers of Dale Farm, explained yesterday that many of those under threat were the most vulnerable of the traveller community - the elderly, the sick or those with young children.
"The extent of need on that site is great. The first people who give up travelling because of the stresses are those with the greatest medical and educational needs, people with mental health needs, physical disabilities or those who require the stability of education for kids with special needs," he said.
But today, after fighting through the courts for four years, more than 60 families heard they could be moved on from the Green Belt land at Crays Hill.
The travellers' spokesman Grattan Puxon warned that the situation could explode into violence if the bailiffs were sent in.
"The women are very, very upset and the men are very, very defiant. They will defend the farm. There is nowhere for them to go and it is very traumatising for the children. I am not advocating violence but violence is brought to us by the bailiffs who have terrorised the children in the past," said Mr Puxon.
Three judges reversed a ruling by a High Court judge who quashed a decision by Basildon District Council to take direct action to force compliance with enforcement notices over the land in Billericay, Essex. Lord Justice Pill said the High Court judge, Mr Justice Collins, was "in error" to find that consideration had not been given to the individual families and the council's decision to clear the sites was lawfully taken.
Mr Puxon said that as many as 80 primary school children would lose their places at school while a plan for a new school for 50 secondary pupils - prevented from taking up education to date because of "racist taunts" - would be under threat if they were moved on.
Travellers first began settling there in the 1960s when permission was granted for 40 families. But over the past eight years it has grown with many others gravitating towards Dale Farm without permission, often having been evicted from elsewhere. Travellers bought land on an old scrap yard, which is designated Green Belt, and the community grew to more than 1,000 people.
Since 1990 the total number of gypsy and traveller caravans had increased nationally by 44 per cent but in the Basildon District, the numbers rose by over 475 per cent.
In May 2005, the council voted to bring in enforcement notices to remove more than 1,000 people in because there was no planning permission for their caravans. But the residents won an eleventh hour reprieve to stop the bailiffs and demolishing of the site, starting a long legal battle to hold on to their homes.
But today Lord Justice Pill overturned the High Court judgement that the council's decision to evict the residents of Dale Farm by direct action was unlawful.
Dr Lomax insisted that the court had ordered that the council still has to decide what action to take and he hoped they would respect its legal duty towards those made homeless. He is still hoping that the case may go to the House of Lords.
"It is hoped that the council now acts reasonably and thinks very carefully before sending in the bulldozers to clear the entire site," said he lawyer, adding that the more than a year ago the East of England Regional Assembly determined that Basildon Council needed to provide 81 additional plots for travellers yet not a single one had been created.
"Now, Basildon council, it is up to you. People need places to live," he said, adding: "Site provision is the answer, not endless evictions onto the open road. Stop passing the buck."
Yesterday Bala Mahendran, Chief Executive, Basildon District Council, said: "The Council wishes to make it clear that although officers will start the detailed planning for the clearance operation straight away, any evictions will not take place immediately."