Travellers win last-gasp delay

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Residents of the UK's biggest illegal travellers' site tonight won a last-minute injunction temporarily halting moves to evict them from their homes.

About 200 protesters barricaded themselves inside Dale Farm in Basildon, Essex, as the local council prepared to remove them forcibly from the former scrapyard.

Bailiffs gave residents a final chance to leave voluntarily today before they began the process of ejecting them from the site.

But just before 5pm a judge at London's High Court granted an order stopping the local authority from clearing caravans and cars until a further legal hearing on Friday.

Mr Justice Edwards-Stuart said there was a realistic fear that the measures being taken by Basildon Council might go further than the terms of the enforcement notices.

The order also prevents the local authority from cutting off utilities like electricity unless they pose a danger.

But the judge said the residents had to take reasonable steps to permit council officials on site to discuss arrangements with individuals, to discourage further protests and to arrange the dismantling of barricades.

News of the injunction provoked cheers inside the site and travellers taunted bailiffs by singing: "We're not going to go."

Resident Mary Slattery said: "We are delighted. Every day is a bonus. We've got one last chance and we're not going to give up - this gives us so much hope."

Basildon Council leader Tony Ball said he was "extremely disappointed and frustrated" by the judge's decision.

"I am absolutely clear that on this issue, on Friday, the court will find in the council's favour and that the site clearance will be able to continue," he said.

"But until them, as always, this council will comply with the law and we will comply with the judgment that has been put before us."

A separate legal challenge to the eviction, brought in the Appeal Court by 72-year-old traveller Mary Flynn on the grounds of her poor health, failed today.

After a day of mounting tensions between officials and the residents, bailiffs walked to Dale Farm's main gate just before 3pm and issued a final warning through the makeshift barricades erected by activists.

Wearing a yellow hard hat and a blue high-visibility jacket, Bryan Lecoche, from bailiffs Constant and Company, told the demonstrators: "I'm concerned for your wellbeing and the wellbeing of the council's agents who have been instructed to restore the land.

"In the interests of health and safety, is there anything I can say or do that will persuade you to remove yourselves in an orderly manner?"

But after being met only by shouts of "scum", Mr Lecoche led his men back to their nearby compound.

The stand-off at Dale Farm is the latest episode in the travellers' unsuccessful decade-long legal fight over unauthorised development on 51 plots on half of the six-acre site.

Protesters have erected reinforced barricades and built a new wall, and some chained themselves to obstacles in an attempt to keep the bailiffs out, although they began unlocking themselves after learning of the High Court injunction.

Two supporters, giving their names as Dean, 29, and Emma, 18, handcuffed themselves to a pole concreted inside a barrel behind the gate to the site.

Dean said: "I have studied what's going on here long and hard, and believe when the law is used for wrong, civil disobedience is the only way to oppose it.

"The idea is the bailiffs cannot open this gate without killing us both. We'll sleep here for weeks if we have to."

The council delayed starting the clearance process this morning after the travellers requested a meeting but talks broke down over the residents' demand that the eviction be put off until November.

Mr Ball said the full operation to clear the site could last as long as six to eight weeks.

Basildon Council said it had offered accommodation to all of the families affected.

Mr Ball said he understood that the travellers on the illegal site were outnumbered by the 50 to 60 supporters protesting against the eviction.

"My personal concern is the intervention of outsiders, who maybe have their own agendas and again, in my view, not the interests of the travellers at their heart, certainly raises the risk of there being a disturbance," he said.

Travellers at Dale Farm reacted angrily to claims that only activists remained inside the wire.

Kathleen McCarthy said: "The elderly and sick are here, and we will stay. That bluff won't work with us."

Essex Police mounted a major operation to prevent violence breaking out at the site but had made no arrests by 5pm.

Meanwhile, it was claimed today that the Government turned down an offer by the United Nations (UN) to help broker an agreement between the travellers and the council.

Jan Jarab, the European representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Guardian: "We offered to be part of a negotiation to try and arrive at a less dramatic solution at Dale Farm.

"There was communication between the British Government and our headquarters, but it was made clear to us that we would receive a letter that that offer was rejected."