Residents of Dale Farm and the activists who have been living among them for months finally left the site in a symbolic walkout yesterday, ending the decade-long legal battle over Britain's largest illegal Traveller site.
After a day of battles with police and bailiffs, residents said they wanted to leave with dignity. "We wanted to tell our children and grandchildren that we tried, that we fought to the last and finally that we walked out of there with our heads held high," said Kathleen McCarthy, who has lived at Dale Farm throughout the 10-year fight with Basildon Council over planning permission.
Earlier in the day, bailiffs began tearing down the tower at the main gate. Many Travellers said they do not know where they are going to go next, most saying they will be back "by the side of the road" and sleeping in car parks and fields.
It emerged yesterday the community faces losing ownership of the land as the council tries to recoup some of the costs of repeated delays caused by the legal challenges. When the High Court in London ruled the clearances could go ahead it also decided the cost of a delay, caused by nearly a month of legal wrangling, should be met by Travellers. "We will be pursuing the costs so at least some public money can be recovered, and we would say that includes land," said Tony Ball, leader of Basildon Council.
The Travellers own the land on which the site is built but did not have planning permission for around half of it. The evictions related to all but five of the 54 plots on the illegal section. Mr Ball admitted that, since they own the land, the Travellers are free to return to it even now they have been evicted but they are still prevented from using it as a dwelling. He said: "We will remove all of the hard-standing and make it so that caravans cannot be brought back on to it but it is, of course, their right to re-enter their land, should they wish. They will have to use it for a purpose which matches its status as green-belt land, though. Otherwise, the eviction notices will apply again."
Asked if the council had the resources to get into a game of cat and mouse, should residents attempt to resettle the site, he reiterated his intention to recoup a portion of the costs incurred by the council. Estimates of the total cost of the evictions vary, with Basildon Council putting the figure at £18m and the Travellers claiming it will be £40m.
In September, the Travellers offered to sell the land to the council and leave in return for £6m. But Mr Ball turned down the offer, saying it would be "unacceptable to enter any agreement where the Travellers effectively profited from breaking the law". In what appeared to be a change of heart, Mr Ball said yesterday: "There will be more legal Traveller pitches in Basildon," but admitted there were no specific plans in place at the moment.