Essential truths about Dale Farm have been obscured by the media scrum.
By John Baron MP
Dale Farm has been subject to a high media profile, and all the more so over the past week. The travellers have proved adept at motivating support for their cause, and have been able to call upon the support of actresses, bishops, parliamentarians and various organs of the United Nations and the European Union. However, in the media scrum some essential truths have become obscured.
Contrary to what the travellers and their legion of often misguided supporters hold to be the truth, the eviction from the Dale Farm site has nothing to do with the abuse of human rights, nor is it a matter of discriminating against a particular minority. Instead it is the culmination of a long and regrettable exercise in upholding planning laws, which apply equally to all people the length and breadth of the country. Yes, minorities have human rights; but we tend to forget too readily in this country that the majority also have human rights – which includes an expectation that the law will be applied equitably and fairly. There should not be one law for the travellers and another for local residents, otherwise we would be discriminating against the law-abiding majority. The plain fact is that Basildon council would be taking this action regardless of who was involved.
I am sad that the matter has come to this. The 2003 decision by the-then deputy prime minister to prevent Basildon council from taking action against the small number of travellers on the Dale Farm site at that time has proved to be quite disastrous. John Prescott's contention that a two-year moratorium would give the travellers time to find alternative sites and to move off was totally unrealistic. In that period the site quadrupled in size, presenting the council with a much greater challenge once the legal process was able to resume.
In addition, it is not the case that Basildon council has it in for the travelling community: there are 113 authorised sites and pitches in the district, significantly higher than the national average. Nor is it true that Basildon council has ignored the travellers and has refused to find them alternative accommodation. The council is happy to meet its obligations regarding the vulnerable, elderly and young. The fact is that few travellers have even put in an application for social accommodation, and those that have been offered accommodation have refused it on the grounds it was not 'culturally appropriate'. Meanwhile, we must remember that there are over 3,700 law-abiding families on the council's housing waiting list – no queues should be jumped.
As matters currently stand, there is an injunction preventing any further action on the part of the council. However, the highest courts in the land have found in the council's favour. There is no dispute that the enforcement notices are valid. The travellers' attitude to the law smacks of hypocrisy: on the one hand, they are using the court to delay matters and to add to costs; on the other, they claim they will resist the site clearance – which is unlawful.
Meanwhile, the protesters, activists and other camp followers assembled at Dale Farm are not helping matters, inflaming an already delicate situation and making matters more difficult and painful for both sides. At every stage of this ten-year dispute the council and myself have appealed to the travellers to move off peacefully, and I once again urge them to do so. But be in no doubt, this site clearance will proceed.
John Baron has been Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay since 2001.
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