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The day Westminster went to traveller city

MPs find a rude awakening on a 'problem-solving' trip to a site threatened with eviction
  • @tompeck

Against a backdrop of beaten up caravans and dogs scampering in the dust, the 4th Baron Avebury and Conservative Councillor Richard Bennett are discussing the legislative intricacies of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, in front of local news cameras.

Both are trying to ignore the 10-year-old boy in a Wayne Rooney football shirt, jumping up and down in front of the lens shouting "Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!" until eventually the Baron can take no more, and offers a handshake and a "How do you do?" The boy, startled, runs off with the tripod (it was later recovered).

"We won't go!" reads the sign above the entrance to Dale Farm, near Wickford in Essex, the largest Irish traveller site in the UK. Basildon council voted last month to evict the majority of the tenants, many of whom have been there for 10 years or more. Protests have taken place, with UN representatives siding with the travellers, and police helicopters have been circling, prompting fears the dreaded 28-day eviction notice may be about to arrive.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies and Travellers was dispatched from Westminster to see if a solution could be found. "Ah, lovely to see you, you get better looking every day," long-term resident Mary Ann McCarthy, a so called "queen" of the community, tells the 82-year-old Lord Avebury, who, like a respectable Lib Dem, has a "Yes to AV" badge on his lapel. "Shall we put the kettle on?"

Shadow Justice Minister, Andy Slaughter MP, Cllr Richard Bennett, the Conservatives' man on traveller and gypsy communities, former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe and a representative from the Irish Embassy are served sandwiches and soft drinks inside Ms McCarthy's semi-permanent chalet.

"Eric Pickles is a bad man," she tells them. Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has recently warned councils to be on their guard for "land grabs" by the travelling community. "I'm speaking the truth from my heart. He is anti-traveller, and the rest of the Government has given him the rocks to throw at us. Everyone is entitled to live their lives the way they want to."

"If the council deliver this 28-day letter, it will be a declaration of war. Bulldozing people's homes is an act of violence. We hope it doesn't come to that," Grattan Puxon, a leading campaigner for the traveller community, tells them. "This is a model community."

Moments later, the delegation has to part as a new Mercedes full of teenage boys accelerates up the site's main gravel road. They turn around and do it again, this time pausing to pass a graphic verdict on a female Italian "desegregation expert" sent by the EU Commission. Next to her is a sign warning "THE MEDIA" against entering without prior appointment. "You wanna watch it up there," warns a 10-year-old on a bike. "There's loads of dogs. They bite."

It is estimated evicting the travellers will cost £18m, or 30 per cent of Basildon Council's budget. Should the travellers be forced out, they say they will live on the roadside, also unauthorised, which could cost £200m over 10 years. "This is my home. They can't take our home from us," said a 16-year-old boy called Jonathan. "I'll climb that scaffolding there and hang myself."

With the council's mind made up, it is not clear what politicians can do to help, but their presence was welcomed. "Politicians and travellers are a lot alike," pondered Ms McCarthy. "Some are good, some are bad, but neither of us deserve the reputation we've got."