The other day I visited Dale Farm in Crays Hill, Essex, allegedly the largest illegal Traveller site in Europe.
It was pouring down with rain and the place looked deserted. A resident with a young girl and dog in tow eyed my car with suspicion, but her face softened when I wound down my window and told her I was there to see Mary-Ann McCarthy.
The Dublin-born site matriarch waved from her doorstep and welcomed me in. Her mobile home looked as neat as a pin and the living room was plush with a cream leather suite and large dried flower displays.
Mary-Ann, 70, has lived on the site for 10 years, which now houses three generations of her family. She insisted that the Travellers don’t want to break the law but they have nowhere else to go.
Death threats and police escorts
I also met Len Gridley, 52, whose one-and-a-half acres of garden backs onto the Dale Farm site. He said his outspoken opposition to the site has led to death threats and he is given a police escort home after council meetings.
He showed me aerial-view photographs of the site that stretch back to 2001 when the first eight families arrived and put up fencing and hardstandings without planning permission. Now there are 51 plots and 86 families and Basildon Council is expected to serve a 28-day eviction notice at any time.
Mr Gridley said he doesn’t blame the Travellers in spite of the intimidation he’s experienced. He suggested Basildon Council is at fault for not nipping the illegal site development in the bud all those years ago.
It all started with a disgruntled scrap merchant
It’s interesting that it all started with a disgruntled scrap merchant who warned the council that he would sell his land to the Travellers, if he didn’t get the planning permission he wanted. He wasn’t joking.
One wonders why it has taken a decade to get the go-ahead on an eviction that may cost the tax payer as much as £18million. Such is the nature of planning law: the process can take so long if you’re determined to fight it every step of the way.
But the problem is that it isn’t just a simple planning application. It’s actually a small settlement with none of the attributes required of one: no road infrastructure and no water, sewer or power networks. These could cost a lot more than £18million, even if it was a suitable place to locate such a settlement, and who would pay for that?
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