Crays Hill: Two communities divided by a fence

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The Independent Online

When Michael Howard swept through the gate of Windy Ridge, passing the stone eagles which sit atop its pillars, he was on a mission to listen to the people - the voices of the settled community of Crays Hill.

When Michael Howard swept through the gate of Windy Ridge, passing the stone eagles which sit atop its pillars, he was on a mission to listen to the people - the voices of the settled community of Crays Hill.

At the bottom of property developer Len Gridley's impressively long garden he went to have a look at another group of people: the inhabitants of a local travellers' site whose presence in this part of Essex has led to a potentially explosive situation.

Gazing through the 8ft spiked fence that separates the two worlds, Mr Howard was accused yesterday of creating a potent symbol of the depth of the division between the two communities. On the other side of the fence, should he have ventured there, he might have met Kathleen McCarthy. She is a governor at the local school, attended by her youngest daughter MaryAnn, aged 11, and now abandoned by the local settled community.

She described her sense of incredulity at the sight of the Leader of the Opposition gazing through the fence at her. "It was like we were in a zoo," said the 42-year-old mother of four who lives at Crays Hill with her four sisters, two brothers, mother and "30 to 40" cousins. "I was shocked to see such a well educated man hide behind a fence. Did he think he was coming to a war zone and would be held to ransom?" A war zone is exactly what Crays Hill has become. The local Conservative councillor Terri Sargent has tried to see both sides of the argument and regularly goes where Mr Howard apparently fears to tread. But she still supports her leader in doing something to help address the anger felt by locals who have watched with dismay as an estimated 1,000 Irish travellers have taken up residence on the greenbelt site close to their homes.

After buying parcels of land the new arrivals erected homes in contravention of planning laws. Following a decision by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister two years ago, the families have been given until 13 May to move, or face eviction. But they continue to appeal and few believe the date will mark the end of the conflict.

Mrs Sargent has been inundated with demands for action since taking up her position as a councillor in 2002. The local Tory MP, John Baron, raised the issue at a meeting with Tony Blair, resulting in the introduction of new powers for local councils temporarily to stop the development of such sites. But it is a case of too little too late for opponents of the site.

Mrs Sargent said: "I could inform the council about illegal development. I could inform the police about antisocial behaviour. But I found myself to be ineffective. I was forced to work within the powers that are given to the local authorities."

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