Sacrificed to the “Green Belt”

This Monday, the eviction of hundreds of Travelers, or Gypsies, camped at Dale Farm, in Essex was halted in the High Court. The eighty or more families have been on the site for more than ten years, on land they bought. The Council says that the travelers have broken England’s Town and Country Planning Act by building on land that has no planning permission, and is a part of the “Green Belt” of protected countryside. Dale Farm is one of the largest traveler sites in Britain and critics find disturbing echoes of past persecutions of Gypsies.

Justice Edwards-Stuart stopped the eviction till Friday, for fear that the Council’s bailiffs would overreach themselves. No doubt the judge could see that hounding Gypsy families makes Britain look very bad in the world press.

With Basildon council’s bailiffs threatening to tear down the bungalows and chalets the travelers have built, you might think that Britain has houses to spare. But it does not. There are more than twenty million households in Britain and rising. But each year fewer than 150,000 new homes are built, not enough to replace the existing housing stock, let alone build homes for the growing number of families. The House Builders’ Federation estimates that at the current rate of replacement, each new house built will have to stand for 1,200 years.

Stranger still, the Communities’ and Local Government ministry has been warning that too few homes are being built for at least the last ten years. As Basildon’s (Conservative) leader tears down homes at Dale Farm, Minister Eric Pickles cheers him on. But Pickles also says that we need to build more homes, and that the rules need to be relaxed to let it happen.

He is right. Britain’s Town and Country Planning Act is supposed to protect the mostly Conservative voting countryfolk from being encroached upon by new urban developments. It has been a terrible blight on house building in Britain. So few homes are being built that younger families cannot afford to buy, the numbers renting are on the rise (but so are rents), and the numbers who have to find shared accommodation are rising, too. Britain’s aging houses are being broken up into ever smaller flats to house people. But though the last three governments all owned up to the problem, none has the courage to change Britain’s sacred “green belt” laws.

The Dale Farm travelers made their own solution to the housing shortage. They bought the land. They built the homes. They should be hailed across the land as heroes.

Instead they are — unless they win the hearing on Friday — to be thrown off the land, their homes destroyed, and chased across the country to stop them from settling. To show just what a lie the “Green Belt” is, Basildon Council has been spending the last few years having more and more of Basildon designated “Green Belt” — so that when they did evict the travelers, they would not be able to settle again.

Settler’s leader Richard Sheridan explains that they would like to find land elsewhere to settle, but every available inch turns out to be a part of the “Green Belt” — and if it is not now, the authorities will have it declared “Green Belt” the minute anyone threatens to settle there.

The Travelers’ greatest sin is that they sorted out the problem for themselves. Instead of getting new homes built for people in Basildon, the council has turned on the Travelers as scapegoats, accusing them of breaking the law, and cheating their way into new homes. For some residents there is jealousy that the Travelers have managed to find homes, when their own children cannot.

As it happens, the Basildon was settled unofficially, by working-class people, mostly from London, in the 1920s. Those Londoners, who worked in the summer as farm laborers, often picking hops, remembered scorching days in Essex with great affection. Like the Travelers of today, they took advantage of a fall in the price of land, and bought up small plots. They built homes that were not much more than sheds, sometimes towing old railway carriages onto the plot for a makeshift home. They built in places like Jaywick Sands, Canvey Island, Dunton and Pitsea.

The “plotlanders” of the 1920s scandalized the Conservative landowners of their day. It was the campaign against the unplanned development of plotlands, which was decried as “Bungaloid Growth” that led to the creation of the Green Belt. The postwar Labour Government had a plan to build new homes, but it was de-railed by Tory backbenchers, who amended it to enshrine the sacred “Green Belt” legislation, to choke off any urban invasion.

As a compromise, those plotlands that had been settled were made into official “New Towns” — the old plotland settlement of Pitsea was renamed . . . Basildon.

Basildon Council is trying to appeal to the worst in people when it persecutes the Travelers of Dale Farm. But the people of Basildon ought to remember that their town was built by people very like the Gypsies who are being evicted today, people who took a hold of the problem of homelessness and made their own communities.

This Friday, the Travelers and their supporters will try to get the High Court in the Strand to stop the injunction for good.