This is a freedom issue, not a ‘humanitarian crisis’
We should support the Dale Farm Travellers’ right to live where they choose, not invite the UN to help preserve their cultural Otherness.
Something nasty is afoot at Dale Farm in Essex in the south-east of England.
Around 86 Traveller families look set to be forcibly evicted from their homes. Whichever way you look at it, that’s pretty cruel. So what, you may be wondering, have these people done that could prompt such a harsh punishment? What horrific crimes have they committed? What wrong have they done to society? The answer is shocking for its banality. These people built homes on land that they owned.
The problem, however, is that the land on which they built – a disused scrapheap near old ‘new town’ Basildon – lies in the UK’s Green Belt. This means that even if you own the land, even it is, in this case, a former dumping ground for unwanted metal, you can’t build on it unless you have been given permission by the local planning authority. And in this case, the local planning authority, a self-appointed body of bureaucrats, politicians and experts, refused to grant such permission. The Dale Farm residents tried to gain permission all right: over the past 10 years they submitted countless planning applications, only to be turned down each time. A repeated defeat made all the more galling for the fact that about half the other residents on the Dale Farm site had been granted planning permission in the late 1990s.
There is no doubt that it is a horrible decision to evict these people. As it happens, the majority of residents are Irish Travellers. But most of them have not been doing much travelling over the past decade or so. Instead, they’ve been making a life for themselves in this part of England, working locally, sending their kids to the nearby schools and generally trying to get on with their lives. To uproot and destroy a whole community, to rip them from the place they’ve been calling home for years, is a disgrace.
Not that the potential Dale Farm evictees have been without supporters. In fact, the Dale Farm cause has acquired big-hitting backing, with both the UN and Amnesty international getting involved. But as far as such organisations are concerned this is not simply an assault on people’s right to live as they see fit – it is discrimination, a case of borderline racism. As part of its press release commenting on the Dale Farm issue, Amnesty stated: ‘This discrimination against and marginalisation of Romani, Gypsies and Travellers in the UK has been documented by reports conducted by NGOs, international organisations and government studies.’ Clearly excited by the presence of UN and Amnesty doing what they usually do in dark-skinned regions of the world, but this time doing it in the white-van-man county of Essex, local Catholic bishop Thomas McMahon called Dale Farm a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
The problem with supposedly supportive interventions of this type is that what should be at issue – people’s freedom to live their lives in houses and areas of their choosing – is lost. In the eyes of their newfound supporters, the Dale Farm residents have ceased to be people like us; instead they have become entirely other than us. They have been turned into objects; or better still, they have been objectified as victims. Victims, that is, of Basildon locals’ proclivity for gypsy-loathing, for suspecting Travellers of nicking slate, of stealing from the local shops, of child-catching even.
The real stereotyping going on here is against the white working-class ‘settled’ residents of Basildon, who are depicted by Dale Farm’s well-to-do supporters as just too bigoted, too prejudiced, too potentially lynch-mobbable to tolerate Travellers in their midst. This, it is assumed, is what really underlies the local council’s decision to evict the non-travelling Travellers – a pandering to the racist beliefs of local constituents. In the words of the editor of Travelling Times, it all centres on the ‘hysteria and hatred’ surrounding the Travelling community: ‘It’s the kind of thing people have been saying for a long time, that Travelling communities are involved in anti-social behaviour and stealing children.’
You really know you’re up victimhood creek when part-time actress and full-time do-gooder Vanessa Redgrave starts championing your cause. And unfortunately, for the past few days, it seems Redgrave has virtually taken up residence at Dale Farm. Proving that in the discourse of victimhood you’re never more than five minutes away from a morally coercive allusion to the Nazis or the Holocaust, Redgrave said, ‘I have always supported the Travellers… since I became conscious of what happened during Hitler’s rule… I’m just saying minorities shouldn’t be destroyed.’ With the great and the Guardian-reading rallying to the Travellers’ cause, the Dale Farm residents have ceased to be ordinary people trying to win the right to build on land they own, a right that would actually benefit us all. Instead they’ve become bona fide victims complete with the imprimatur of victimhood: the Holocaust reference. They aren’t people fighting for a bit of freedom, they are a special group in need of protection from the rabid locals.
Accompanying this victimising view has been a tendency to fetishise the community supposedly embodied by Dale Farm. Again, this is not motivated by the extent to which the Travellers are the same as us, and how the issues they are facing could also face us. Quite the opposite. Dale Farm apparently represents the sense of community that the rest of society lacks. Each report draws attention to the same thing: they look after each others’ children, they do each others’ shopping, and they watch out for one another. Dale Farm has become the reverse image of the social atomisation and anomie that predominates in society at large. Little wonder that Redgrave sounded mournful when talking about the ‘destroyed and decimated’ communities ‘up and down the country’, before turning her attention to the few remaining communities in the country: ‘Dale Farm is one of those… I’d be happy to live with them, that’s for sure.’ No doubt she said this before dashing back to north London with the rest of Dale Farm-patronising hipsters.
While the informal networks of support and the profound sense of social solidarity are indeed phenomena to be valued, there has been a tendency to treat Dale Farm as a case apart. It is not being defended because its residents ought to be able to live on land they own, in a place they have lived in for years. Rather it is being defended much as one might defend a heritage site. The main difference being that it’s not a stately home that is being preserved in aspic, but the culture and community of Travellers. That Travellers are tight-knit, that they subsist largely in opposition to the rest of society, is not even something that should necessarily be celebrated. To do so is to celebrate the poverty, the backwardness and the refusal to integrate which has long underpinned the existence of Travelling communities. There is nothing wonderful about that.
So what is needed here is not a heritage approach that celebrates and fetishises specific cultures much as eugenicists used to celebrate and fetishise race. No, what needs to be championed here is the Dale Farm residents’ right to build and inhabit homes of their choosing. And this means being able to build on the Green Belt, that great moat of snobbery introduced in the 1940s and expanding ever since, to protect country-dwelling toffs from the sprawling reaches of town-based toilers. Moreover, this also means challenging, as the 250 New Towns club has repeatedly pointed out, national planning law. As the club writes, ‘Since [the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act] there is no right to build freely. Local Planning Authorities are able to insist that their changeable local plans are followed, and any unauthorised developments that vary from their intentions can be demolished.’
This legislation is precisely what is being invoked by the local council intent on demolishing part of Dale Farm. And it is this legislation that needs to be challenged, not the supposed attitudes of Basildon-dwelling locals. As Dale Farm residents have discovered to their cost, to accept that a self-styled bunch of planning experts has the right to tell you whether or not you can build a home on land you own is a cruel restriction on people’s freedom and liberty.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.