Barricades, helicopters, riot police. The spectacle of hard-hatted bailiffs making the first moves to clear the Dale Farm Traveller site by force was an unedifying one, not least because of the sense of inevitability. And despite the last-minute injunction putting any further clearance off until at least Friday, local relationships soured beyond repair by a decade of legal wrangling leave little room for the compromise needed to avoid a confrontation.
That is not to suggest there is an easy answer at Dale Farm. The Travellers legally own the six-acre former scrapyard at the centre of the controversy, and have planning permission for the developments on one half of it. But as the dispute has escalated over the other half of the site – where more than 50 illegal structures are home to 86 different families – each side has marshalled progressively more powerful arguments in its support.
The Travellers cite human rights laws and backing from the United Nations, pointing out that, although the site may officially be Green Belt, it is hardly a beauty spot, and beg Basildon Council to show some humanity. For their part, law-abiding local residents say they have been fighting the illegal settlement for 10 years and that all should be equal before the law. Both positions deserve a hearing, and negotiation rather than rhetoric was required to bridge the gulf between them.
Way back at the beginning, there might have been opportunities for a deal, whether by revisiting the original planning application for the scrapyard site or by finding a suitable alternative. Instead, there was stalemate. By the time semi-professional agitators were chaining themselves to immovable objects at Dale Farm yesterday, the situation was irretrievable. That Basildon Council can find £18m to clear the site, but cannot find the evicted residents an alternative site, is a measure of the absurdity to which it has sunk.
Amid the passion and the politics, what has been obscured is the fact that the problem is not, at its heart, one of either discrimination or the erosion of the rule of law. It is a result of a shortage of legal sites for Travellers. Rather more worryingly, the problem is not going to go away by itself, even when the Dale Farm dispute is finally resolved. Although the Essex site is Britain's largest illegal Traveller camp, there are anything up to 3,600 more, scattered around the country and rarely welcomed by the communities around them. Sadly, Dale Farm is just the beginning.
There have been some efforts to address the issue, most recently the Labour government's regional targets for councils to increase the number of legal Traveller sites. But the policy was abandoned by the Coalition before it could have any significant impact, and its regional co-ordination element was scrapped.
Everything about the situation at Dale Farm is unacceptable: the children facing eviction from their homes; the local residents demonised for wanting others to live by the same rules as they do; the bailiffs needing a police escort. Central government cannot simply cut the matter loose. Britain's Travellers deserve more help from society in finding land on which they can live.
But it is not only up to the Government; the Travellers themselves also have a role to play. The argument that there should be space in 21st-century Britain for unconventional lifestyles can be hard to make if local residents living near Travellers have to struggle with anti-social or illegal behaviour. And to dismiss all such claims as racist is unfair and counter-productive. Avoiding a repeat of Dale Farm will take action from both sides. It is an effort that needs to be made.