Dale Farm rebellion against eco-elitism

The gypsies in Basildon, England, are being evicted for sinning against that sacred cow: the English Countryside.

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics

Last week, the travellers living at Dale Farm in Basildon, England, lost their appeal against the eviction that the Tory Basildon Council is demanding. Gypsies have lived at Dale Farm by Crays Hill in Essex for many years, building homes and forging a community, and over the past decade their numbers have swelled to 300. The evictions seem like one more episode in the unlovely fight between councils and travellers, over the number of sites travellers can occupy, when they should be moved on, and so on.

However, there is one big difference in the Dale Farm evictions. The gypsies at Dale Farm are not squatting land. They own it. In 2002, Ray Bocking sold the land that the council now wants to recover to John Sheridan for £120,000.

The law that the Basildon Council is upholding is the law that protects the so-called ‘Green Belt’, which is supposed to stop our towns and cities from sprawling over the unspoilt countryside. Sheridan and his fellow travellers have not taken anyone else’s land; they have built their own homes on their own land. But they are being punished because they have sinned against the sacred cow that is the English Countryside.

Britain’s Green Belt dates back to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Many homes were destroyed in the Second World War and there was a lot of pressure for new building. But Tory MPs made sure that development plans would keep their rural shires free from too many lower-class oiks, by creating a new ‘planning’ regime that meant that even if you owned the land, you could not build on it without planning permission. They earmarked land around towns as ‘Green Belt’ with the express purpose of stopping the sprawling masses from spoiling their precious countryside. Over the years, as it has become more middle-class, the Labour Party, too, has embraced the Town and Country Planning Act, investing it with green ideals. In 1998, the government-appointed Urban Task Force committed us to the idea that no Greenfield sites would be built upon. This low to no-growth regime was policed by local authorities, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and scores of other environmental quangos.

What was the outcome of the limits that the political class put upon the building of new homes? House-building has fallen to a record low. Amazingly, that was true in the middle of the ‘housing boom’. Usually when we say that something is booming, we mean that there is more of it. But the housing boom was different. The only things that boomed were the prices. There was no additional supply of homes to meet demand because of the political restrictions on new homes being built, which meant that prices climbed even higher when credit was cheap. When Tony Blair was prime minister, the number of new homes built fell to just 200,000 a year. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but actually, it is not even enough to replace the ones that will fall down. With 20million households, you need to build around 250,000 houses a year just to replace the dilapidated stock, let alone meet growing demand. In the 1960s, housebuilding was as high as 460,000.

But what happened when the housing bubble burst? Did house prices come down? Yes. Does that mean more people can afford them? No. Banks have tightened up the mortgage rules so that fewer people can buy. The crash has become a disaster for an industry that was already groaning under the weight of regulations. This year just 100,000 new homes will be built. All of the major developers are closing down their operations just when more people need new homes.

That is why the Dale Farm travellers are the last people who should be punished by the authorities. What John Sheridan and his friends and family did should not be condemned, but followed. They ignored the rules and put human need first by building the homes that Barratt and David Wilson will not.

Tory councillor and MEP candidate Vicky Ford demanded to know ‘why should travellers be allowed to build in places that the general public are not’ (1). It is a question also asked by people living next door to Dale Farm, whose children cannot afford to buy a home: ‘Why don’t we all start building extra houses, if they can get away with it?’ (2) People usually mean it rhetorically. But actually, it is the right question, just put the wrong way around.

The real question is: why do more people not build the homes they need, where they need them? Councillor Ford is confused. The travellers are not allowed to do anything that anyone else is not allowed to do. It is just that they are confident enough to do what they need to, instead of waiting for permission. The Dale Farm travellers should not be pariahs, but role models – at least in their willingness to take the law into their own hands.

In the interwar years, working-class people did just what the Dale Farm travellers are doing now. They bought up cheap land and built their own homes – often little more than sheds or disused railway carriages – in unplanned developments that were called ‘Plotlands’. The plots in Kent and Essex were bought by Londoners, many of whom had worked there as hop-pickers in the summer. One of the most successful Plotlands was in a place called Pitsea, and it was near there that the postwar planners dropped a New Town, to take the area back into official control. That New Town is Basildon, which owes its modern origins to the unplanned building at Pitsea (3).

The threat to England’s Green and Pleasant land is for the most part in people’s imaginations. No more than one tenth of the UK is developed, and the rest is countryside, or undeveloped. In the South East of England, developed land counts for a bit more – 12 per cent – but it is still a tiny share of the land available. Dale Farm was not a rural arcadia before John Sheridan bought it. It was a council-supported scrapyard, where cars were broken up.

Some have woken up to the historic failure to build the houses we need to live in. The Labour MPs Jon Cruddas and John McDonnell are calling for more council homes to be built. But given the glacially slow pace that government-backed development moves at, this might just be a solution for the twenty-second century, but precious little help today.

More radical voices have called for a revival of the squatting movement, where people occupied abandoned homes (4). As a veteran of the squatting movement, I have to tell them that it worked back then because in the Seventies recession left many homes unoccupied. Today we have the lowest number of voids (unoccupied homes) in Europe. What we do have is millions of acres of unoccupied land.

Not everyone has the skills or the resources to build their own homes, so it is not a solution for all. But what the Dale Farm travellers are doing is an example that we need to learn from. Our rules on building need to put people first, not crazy prejudices against the masses that are dressed up as saving the environment. Instead of evicting the Dale Farm travellers, we should imitate them, and build on the Green Belt.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. His book Let’s Build: Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next Ten Years is available from his website at www.heartfield.org.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings saw a film about Irish Travellers which was well shot but shallow. James Woudhuysen warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism. In a spiked/CMP debate, a panel considered whether it was time to build on the green belt. Neil Davenport criticised the reactionary firebrands who want to keep the riff raff off the green belt. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning .

(1) See Vicky Ford’s blog, entry for 24 November 2006

(2) Villagers hoping for an end to Dale Farm saga soon, Echo, 30 May 2008

(3) The story of Plotlands is told in Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward’s book Arcadia for All, Five Leaves, 2003

(4) Some housing traditions that need reviving, Socialist Worker, 24 June 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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