Travellers in Essex, who claim they are living in fear of an apartheid-style dawn eviction, say they will defend their homes using non-violent resistance and human shields.
Dale Farm, near Basildon, is the largest travellers' community in Britain, the home of approximately 600 residents living in 86 homes. Virtually a village, with chalets, mobile-homes and brick-walled gardens, Dale Farm's residents have erected barbed-wire, scaffolding and multiple steel gates because they say they expect to wake up any day now to find themselves under siege.
Cliff Codona, chair of Britain's recently established Gypsy Forum, argues that Basildon District Council is ready to enforce the £3million eviction it voted for last year. "Basildon will do what ever they need to do when they want to," he says, unconvinced that recent moves by the government and decisions by the courts will stop the Tory-led council.
He says his own experience, when he was evicted from Woodside in Bedfordshire, leaves him sceptical but determined. "We'll keep this up for as long as it takes, we've no other choice."
"This is ethnic-cleansing," Dale Farm spokesman Richard Sheridan said, after Basildon's development committee decided in January by four votes to one, with one abstention, to bulldoze the homes of 1,000 travellers living within their jurisdiction. "They want to get rid of us at all costs."
Despite a High Court ruling earlier this month that Basildon had acted unlawfully by bulldozing homes at Hovefields Avenue, a traveller colony not far from Dale Farm, Sheridan and Codona fear that in the long run Dale Farm residents will also lose their present homes.
Traveller groups insist that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is determined to persuade families to abandon Dale Farm and move to Government-provided land at Pitsea on the other side of Basildon.
Sheridan welcomes Prescott's proposal, but points out that millions in public money could be saved simply by leaving Dale Farm families where they are.
"I think the government needs to take a reality check," says Sheridan. "If Basildon evicts us they'll have the police drive the lot us into the next county before the proposed Pitsea site is even agreed on."
Justice Ouseley's ruling on Hovefields has not deterred the council. Malcolm Buckley, the leader of the council, believes he has the law on his side as well as the support of the council. Cllr Don Morris, who chairs the Housing and Community Safety Scrutiny Committee, says the council will act to the letter of the law. "We will take whatever action is necessary to deal with the legal developments."
Although Justice Ouseley said the council had failed to take into account the possibility that property owners could be successful in obtaining planning permission on appeal, Morris backs Buckley in his assertion that court actions and appeals by the travellers will have no effect on council policy.
"I can’t see the court order having any effect," says Morris. "Our policy is to uphold the law without fear or favour. The fact is that they have come there and done what they have done without planning permission. They have to understand that what they have done is not legal. You simply can’t go on land and build willy-nilly.
"All we are concerned about is that the law must be enforced. If we don't enforce on this we might as well just sack the planning department."
But Codona says Basildon and other councils are in the process of ethnic cleansing using a smoke-screen of planning regulations, in which councils have over-ridden human rights issues.
"We agreed in Strasbourg to stop such evictions," he says. "The Council of Europe endorsed our blueprint for reform and now we want the UK Government to accept these recommendations."
- By Grattan Puxon. Additional reporting: Rob Ray and Robert Allen -