A long nondescript one-track lane leads to Dale Farm, in Crays
Hill, Essex. At first glance it looks no different from any other
country lane until you turn the corner and head into the largest
travellers’ site in the UK – possibly in Europe.
The Dale Farm site hit the headlines after Corin Redgrave had a
heart attack shortly after making an impassioned speech to Basildon
Council against its plans to evict the hundreds of Irish travellers
who have lived at the site for the past four years.
Travellers living on 32 plots on the first part of the site have
been granted planning permission. They are the lucky ones; the
future of 600 people on 47 plots – who have been living on
green belt land on this unauthorised site – is in the hands
of Basildon Council.
As we drive around the site I am struck by the neatness of plots,
which are linked up by tarmaced lanes. There is none of the
graffiti that blights so many housing estates. Caravans stand next
to toilet and shower portacabins, while chalets have fences or
brick walls with metal gates marking out the gravel gardens
decorated with ornaments and statuettes of the Virgin Mary.
Although travellers no longer use horses to move their caravans,
the tradition of owning them remains and piebald and skewbald cobs
graze in the field. Toddlers play with dogs and there is a buzz of
I am greeted by a handful of the men but they soon melt away.
Although they are friendly, it is hard for them to trust
journalists and it is for good reason that they don’t want
their photos taken – if they are recognised in the settled
community they may be refused work. So it is left to Marie to take
me to the McCarthy family’s plot as Kathleen McCarthy has
become a spokesperson for the site.
As we walk through the site we pass an empty plot with blackened
gravel in the shape of a caravan. Marie’s brother and
sister-in-law were killed after a fire broke out in the caravan in
May. Their two daughters aged 11 and 16 – Marie’s
nieces – were rescued seconds before the caravan exploded.
Bunches of flowers are pinned to the fence.
Marie is bewildered that the townspeople, or “townies” as she calls
them, sent bouquets in sympathy yet “still have a hatred to get rid
of us”. When asked how she is coping, she says simply:
Kathleen is not in her caravan so I’m taken to her mother
Mary-Anne’s chalet next door. Although they look like fixed
abodes, these chalets come in two sections and can be pulled apart
and put on wheels to transport. Inside, the magnolia and gold
interior is spotless, like a show house. There is a Christian
missionary box on the mantelpiece.
Family and friends constantly pop in, mobile phones ring, and there
is music playing outside. It would be hard to be lonely living here
– something that Mary-Anne appreciates at the moment after
her husband James died in February, aged 67.
Dressed in black for 11 months of mourning, as are all the
McCarthy women, Mary-Anne isn’t sleeping well because she is
worried about being evicted.
“We’ve spent all our money on this place, built roads, put in
water and electricity. The bailiffs can just come in and turn me
onto the road at 65. Putting us onto the road isn’t going to
solve the problem, it will only make it worse.”
Mary-Anne has travelled all her life. She was born in a horse-drawn
caravan at the side of the road in Dublin. She was 14 when she came
to England with her parents, who thought their daughter would have
a better life than in poverty-stricken Ireland. She married James
at 18 and had seven children.
“Travelling has been condemned for centuries,” she says. “We are
blamed for everything that goes wrong. We can pull into a place for
the night and the next morning the police will be round saying a
house has been broken into.
“Years ago we loved our life, but now we have no life on the road.
We are pushed around like animals. We want to stay together for our
own protection. We would like to have our own site permanently
because we don’t want to be on the road anymore. We break the
law because we have no choice – there are no sites for
Kathleen arrives, fired up to get across the travellers’
point of view. She became their spokesperson after Conservative
leader Michael Howard’s foray to the site. In fact, he had
just looked at the site from the back garden of one of the settled
homes and then gone to a meeting about the site to which no
traveller had been invited. She was so incensed by this that she
got Sky and ITV to interview her.
She says that the site came about because her family had relations
living on the part that has been given planning permission. The
relations told her family that some of the land – a former
scrapyard – was for sale, so they bought it between
“The council is planning on ruining 600 people’s lives,
including older people, children with special needs, people with
cancer and heart problems,” says Kathleen. “I’m 42 and
I’ve been waiting 42 years for a site.
“We have got used to settled life, we can make a doctor’s
appointment, our children are educated, we have electricity and
running water. We pay our council taxes, electricity and water
At this, Mary-Anne shows me the receipts. Kathleen’s
generation cannot read or write, so she had to get her 10-year-old
daughter to write a letter for her to Tony Blair about the
eviction. “It’s a bit late for me and mum, it’s not too
late for our children to get a proper job and pay taxes and this is
what we want,” adds Kathleen. “[Eviction] won’t give our
children a chance to get an education and go to college.”
There has been no interference from the police, which is a first,
she says – “police in this area are very respectful of us.
They don’t keep coming down and saying we have to
They have also had support from the priest at the local Catholic
church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, and its parishioners. The priest
regularly visits his traveller congregation.
Kathleen would like to be able to go to nearby Wickford and say
hello to settled people and for them to say good morning back,
instead of looking the other way. A prime example of the distrust
between the two communities has taken place at Crays Hill primary
school. This is where the travelling children go, and gradually
parents from the settled community have taken their children out.
Kathleen, a governor at the school, is dismayed by this behaviour.
She hopes that if the travellers start up a nursery the townsfolk
will overcome their prejudices to use it.
Geoff Williams, a Liberal Democrat councillor at Basildon Council,
is visiting the site today with his wife Linda, a special needs
teacher. He supports the travellers: “There’s green belt and
green belt. We are not talking about rolling virgin green fields
and a messy encampment. If these good people are evicted where will
“It is an unauthorised site but the whole thrust of what the
government is saying is where that is the case the site should be
managed in conjunction with local authorities, education
authorities and the local community until an authorised site can be
made available. That might mean a long time.”
Williams says there are three reasons not to evict. Firstly, cost:
it could cost the council £3m to evict – more than is
spent on environmental health or planning permission, he says
– and it would raise council tax by 13 per cent to fund
Second is the pointlessness of eviction: the travellers could
register as homeless afterwards and then the council would be duty
bound to house them. Finally, “people seem hardened to the basic
inhumanitarian aspect”, he says. There are people on the site with
diabetes, cancer, mental health problems and two children at local
deaf units. Eviction will end their continuity of care.
“I can’t believe that in the 21st century a civilized
country is resorting to dawn raids and sending in bulldozers. When
it happens in Zimbabwe we throw up our hands in horror.”
Kathleen’s sister Tina comes in, she has been to the doctor
to get antibiotics for an eye infection. She says the bad treatment
of travellers has been going on for centuries, “we want to put a
stop to it for our children”. She sits down to watch an eviction
video with me – it’s the eviction of friends at another
I watch angry travellers shouting at bailiffs and police who have
woken them up at 5.30am to start the eviction. Fires are burning,
bailiffs sledgehammer brick steps up to mobile homes before the
travellers have left, bulldozers move in. An old woman is tearful
and confused, children start screaming as their parents argue with
police. And this is just a small site, it’s hard to imagine
the distress of an eviction on the scale of Dale Farm.
Another of Kathleen’s sisters, Johanna, cleans the already
immaculate chalet while we watch the video, as well as looking
after her nephew John and niece Mary-Anne. Johanna lives in the
chalet with her mum. Like everyone she is afraid of eviction.
“The children born here have never experienced travelling life;
they’re used to using a toilet. I’ve got used to it, I
couldn’t go anywhere in the open again, I would be
embarrassed and ashamed,” she says, shuddering at the thought. “The
babies’ generation will have more choice. I would like to
stay here and get to know the settled community, make friends and
have different conversations.”
The fact that they all want to stay begs the question, why not
become part of the settled community? But to think this is to
underestimate the lifestyle that is engrained in them. Although
this generation of travellers have realised that if their children
are going to stand a better chance of being integrated, educated
and healthy they should stay in one place, part of their culture is
to live together in one community. At Dale Farm, everybody is
related in some way.
As Johanna says: “I couldn’t live in a house. No one would
come round. Here people sit on walls chatting to each other, you
can hear music and see people. After dinner on Christmas Day about
50 people come round for a drink.”
Before leaving, I pop into Tina’s caravan opposite her
mum’s chalet where she lives with her son John and husband
Richard Sheridan. Although it is a small space for three people,
again it is clean and tidy, with religious ornaments on the
Tina says: “By paying council taxes, they are making us pay for
our own eviction.” She cannot understand why they are so hated. She
can only think it’s jealousy because of their supposed
Richard says, “I would like John to have a good education and hope
he doesn’t have to go through the lifestyle I have had. We
are taking the rap for New Age travellers, but this is our culture.
The government has been brushing the issue under the carpet for
With 600 travellers potentially about to be made homeless, it may
not be able to do that for much longer.
- As Community Care went to press, Basildon Council
agreed funds of £1.9m to evict the travellers. No timescale
has yet been set for this to be carried out. The travellers have
pledged to fight the decision through the courts
What does the Council say
Q: Why were some travellers given planning permission to
stay at Dale Farm, but not others?
Basildon Council’s reply: These plots were granted
planning permission or won appeals prior to 1994. A similar
situation would have applied to other dwellings in the area, which
explains why the settled community can live in the area. It should
be noted that dwellings can be permitted in the green belt.
Q: Why were the travellers allowed to buy this
green belt land from the scrapyard?
A: The council has no power to intervene in land
Q: Why were the travellers given two years to find
somewhere else to go, given that this would allow them time to
become settled and put their children into education?
A: This decision was made by the Office of the
Deputy Prime Minister.
Q: How can the high cost of the eviction (up to
£3m) be justified?
A: The council is charged with the responsibility
of enforcing and paying for the enforcement of planning laws. In
this special case we are asking for government financial
Q: What is the council’s response that it is
breaking up a community?
A: This is a national problem and not our
responsibility alone. We would like the government to ensure other
local authorities share the burden. The disruption to a community
is a matter of great regret but this council, which has the fourth
largest number of traveller sites in the country, has and continues
to be generous to travellers. This particular encampment was given
an additional two years to find alternative accommodation.
Q: What will happen if travellers register as
A: Cases of travellers applying for housing will
be treated, as all other 4,000 cases on our books, on their
Absence of duty
Local authorities have not had to provide accommodation
for gypsies and travellers since the Criminal Justice and Public
Disorder Act 1994 repealed the statutory duty to provide static
sites contained in the Caravan Site Act 1968. The idea behind
repealing the act was to privatise sites by encouraging travelling
communities to find land, buy it and live on it. But this has
proved difficult as it is notoriously hard to gain planning