The frustration for Dale Farm is that the situation has been allowed to develop to such a disturbing extent. There is clearly something wrong when an individual declares they are willing to die to protect the interest of their community. The rhetoric is dramatic to say the least. On one side are Basildon Council and the local residents and on the other side is the travelling community plus an assortment of activists. Arguments and accusations have been chucked back and forth; supporters invoke human rights, and their children's entitlement to a home and an education and opponents talk emotively about their own rights as law-abiding citizens, the sanctity of the Green Belt and equality before the law amongst many other things. What was a planning dispute is now threatening to descend into a pitched battle between the authorities and the 86 families on the site.
What I have heard over the last few months and especially on the news coverage last night has utterly astounded me. In such a fraught atmosphere what is surely needed is an element of pragmatism. That is not to say the concerns of local residents and the council should be trivialised- as the law is ultimately on their side. But to learn that the removal of the travellers from Dale Farm will cost £18m makes it more difficult to defend. Let's get this right though, the issue is clearly not simple- the arguments both for and against the travellers removal conflates issues of racism, planning control, equality, public service provision, and the importance of preserving community amongst many, many other things. And the issues are very real and very emotive- I have knowledge that council employees openly refereed to residents of Dale Farm using racist language and the risk assessment for the removal of the travellers goes so far as to contemplate loss of life. This is not a trivial matter; it touches on fundamental issues to the way our society functions.
And that is what seems the fundamental point of discussion to me. Like most other people I wake up, travel to work, put a stint in and return home- every so often paying my taxes. In return the government provides me with, libraries, education, policing, healthcare and welfare support should I need it. And if I don't like what they provide me every five years I get the opportunity to change them. That seems like a pretty good deal to me but it is not where it ends.
It is true that the state is not society, but the state has an important role promoting a successful society. Which for me includes promoting opportunity and equality through law and on this basis I have no objection to the eviction of Dale Farm. But with an estimated 3,600 illegal Traveller sites across the country the problems at Dale Farm need to be addressed.
The cause of conflict is obvious. The travellers on Dale Farm are being dealt with using a policy that can only be applied spatially, planning law- hardly a sensitive doctrine when the issues that need solving are social. Traveller communities have the lowest educational attainment and poorest health of nearly all ethnic groups in the UK- social issues, not spatial ones. Planning rules should not be allowed to stand proxy for a proper debate about the long-term accommodation of Britain's Travellers and the problems they face. Government needs to develop a more compassionate way of dealing with the emotive issues arising from situations like Dale Farm.
That is not to say the council is wrong applying this law. But equally parties from both sides also need to take a more pragmatic view of the situation. The nomadic way of life for travelling communities is clearly unsustainable, traditional seasonal work no longer exists and there is an availability of cheap labour in the UK- thus unsurprisingly travelling communities have become less transient over recent years. Local authorities and travelling communities both need to recognise this. More sites need to be provided but similarly the gypsies need to take a measure of responsibility and use any base to build relationships with surrounding communities and society as a whole.
The most striking thing for me is that the majority of people are surprisingly tolerant of the gypsy way of life. The irony is that any objectification of their plight only alienates them further, enforcing the closed nature of their communities. Vanessa Redgrave might only need potato and cabbage stew to appreciate the value of the community at Dale Farm but she is fundamentally misguided to suggest that this community is any way representative of what a Big Society or a successful society looks like.
I pay my taxes and in return I expect rather a lot, but within the rather mundane description of my life there are a host of reciprocative and mutually beneficial exchanges that are the oil in the machine of a successful society. Like for example the local shop that opens early to provide my office with fresh fruit and milk, or the relationship with my plumber- he fixes my dodgy boiler and I tutor his kids. I'm sure relationships like that take place within Dale Farm, but that is the problem. They only take place within Dale Farm. The makeshift barbed-wire gate and gas cylinders present a visible symbol of the closed nature of this community. That is not a vision of a successful society.
Of course communities and other organisations should play a role in civic life but public institutions and the state also have a duty to improve our collective lives. Ultimately, the dilemma is not simply about planning. More important than any potential fracas in Essex is that the Government devises a coherent response to a problem that will not end with Dale Farm. It is about how modern Britain accommodates unconventional lifestyles. Communities are important, yes. But society is more important.