Thursday, 1 September 2011
Dale Farm. It ain't The Archers.
A number of things are happening at Dale Farm. For starters there is the question of planning permission, or rather the lack of planning permission. Basildon Council are adamant that establishing a residential settlement without planning permission can't be tolerated regardless of who owns the land. For them it's a straightforward planning issue. Most of us, and I'm no different, have a pretty ambiguous attitude toward planning. We hate bureaucratic interference but not as much as we hate powerful developers or supermarkets who can afford to force a planning department into court over and over again until they finally wear them down. Some of us wonder how come Canary Wharf required no planning permission but woe betide any harmless back to the lander who buys a small plot of secluded woodland and decides to live there.
Something else unfolding at Dale Farm is another act in the long drama of the provision of traveler sites. The 1968 Caravan Sites Act, it's eventual repeal in 1994 and the recognition by traveling people that even owning the land that they pulled up on would be no guarantee of being left in peace are all part of a sorry history. It's a history that government, local authorities and the police all come out off looking a lot less than heroic or even remotely generous spirited.
Yet another strand to the story is the perennial distrust that the mainstream of society has toward anyone on the margins. In the past I have lived as an itinerant canal boater and finished my working life as a Thames lockkeeper so have seen that particular branch of travelling life from both sides. I could never see what the problem was. Sure, many people start out with a dream of continually cruising only to find that the reality of work/signing on, schools, doctors etc make staying in one place for long periods a better option. It is also very easy to put a few items (coal, firewood) on the bank and end up with the place looking less than tidy. I speak as someone who kept poultry on the towpath and even had a secret garden where we grew vegetables and a huge crop of dope. It can get a bit out of hand but truth be told we did very little harm. I am convinced that much of the objection to travelers is all about a bitter envy of a people who are perceived, however inaccurately, as being more "free" and in some way getting away with something; something their critics would love to get away with if only they had the bottle. Economic hard times, combined with a housing shortage and high rents, will likely lead to an increase in the number of people living a marginal life. As always they will be easy scapegoats and at the moment the coalition must be credited with not creating the kind of rabid atmosphere that led to the Battle Of The Beanfield under Thatcher.
So is all this an apology for the Irish traveler community? Not really. I suspect that Vanessa Redgrave would be less than enamoured if a couple of hundred travellers rocked up next to her drum. All that Catholicism, superstition, anti-social behaviour and dodgy asphalt jobs mean that we have little in common apart from a genuine love of boxing and the turf. But then again.....