Leading article: The battle is over, but the struggle remains

Every new delay gave the Dale Farm Travellers hope that they might yet prevail
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is hard to see the ugly scenes at Dale Farm early yesterday morning as anything other than the inevitable culmination of a conflict that had dragged on for the best part of a decade. The interests of Basildon Council, its planning authorities and its taxpayers were pitted against those of a group of Travellers, one of the most deprived communities in the country. The longer the dispute continued, the more court hearings were held, the less likely it was that there could be any compromise.

Brutal honesty, however, dictates an acknowledgement that the prospects for concessions by either side were always slim. Someone had to win, and it is right that the existing law has been upheld. Anything else would have undermined planning legislation everywhere in the land. It would have been an invitation not just to Travellers, but to anyone else so inclined, to flout building and settlement provisions, citing the precedent of Dale Farm.

There were elements of ambiguity, to be sure: in the fact that the Travellers had bought the site and were its legal owners; in the fact that half the land had planning permission for settlement, but half did not; in the fact that national and local government had encouraged Travellers to mitigate the shortage of legal sites by buying land for their own use. There was a further ambiguity in the fierce insistence of the Travellers on their right at once to be settled – at Dale Farm – and not settled, to the point where they rejected offers of social housing as incompatible with their traditional lifestyle.

Inevitable though it might have been, however, what happened at Dale Farm yesterday – the massed ranks of police, the batons, the riot shields, the Taser-strikes and the bulldozers, and on the other side, the stone-throwing, the iron bars, the fires and the obstruction – also constituted the face of a multiple and egregious failure. While it is unarguable that the law must always be allowed to take its course, this dispute should never have been drawn out as long as it was. Every new delay gave the Travellers additional hope that they might yet prevail. For them, the 10-year fight only compounds the bitterness of the denouement.

With hindsight, though, the errors do not lie exclusively with the Travellers. Yes, they placed themselves on the wrong side of the law by settling a part of their land for which they did not have permission. But Basildon Council and the last Labour government cannot escape a share of the responsibility, too. Between 2001 and 2005, the council took little action against the Travellers, despite repeated complaints about planning breaches.

When, in 2005, the extension of the Dale Farm development was declared illegal and an eviction order was obtained, the Travellers petitioned the Prime Minister directly and were granted a two-year reprieve. It was recognised that there was an acute shortage of legal sites for Travellers and official policy was under review. Again, the Travellers of Dale Farm could have been forgiven for believing that their illegal occupation might be legalised retrospectively. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain by staying put.

In the end, the resistance to what was unfortunately described as a "clearance" by one senior police officer, was unpleasant, but probably shorter and less violent than many had feared – and the police, so much maligned recently, deserve credit for that. There should also be one positive result from this whole unhappy saga: the legal position, of local authorities and Travellers, is now clear. While there should be no repetition of the 10-year stand-off over Dale Farm, the deeper problems that gave rise to it remain: the shortage of legal Traveller sites, and the fundamental difficulty for a democracy in reconciling the interests of an itinerant minority and the settled majority.

Comments