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Monday, 28 October, 2002, 12:29 GMT
Gypsy experiment faces eviction
A family plot at Woodside
Individual plots: 28 families bought site

A Gypsy community aiming to change perceptions of their way of life is facing eviction from land they own after losing a five-year legal battle.
Down a little country lane in Bedfordshire, shielded from the surroundings by tall trees, you will find the Woodside Gypsies.

As you drive into the Woodside caravan park near the hamlet of Hatch, children are playing in a paddock as horses graze. Mothers are hanging out clothes to dry and a few young men are repairing a van's engine.

There are a lot of people who don't understand us or our culture - evicting us will send us back in time, and we will resist it absolutely

Cliff Codona
"Welcome to our pioneer village," says Cliff Codona, the unofficial manager of Woodside. "Not what you expected is it?"

To all intents and purposes, the five-year-old Woodside project is a self-enclosed community. It has roads, electricity, water and telephones.

Family plots and caravans are neatly fenced off. There is a paddock for the horses and a peaceful copse at the back.

Woodside began as an experiment in how British Gypsies live. But it may end this week in a bitter eviction battle as residents are removed from land they actually own.

Open in new window : Woodside Gypsies
Picture gallery tour of Woodside

In the past 20 years there has been a decline in the number of local authority sites available to travelling communities.

In the early 1990s, Whitehall suggested Gypsies should buy sites they could manage themselves.

Cliff Codona of the Woodside Gypsies
Cliff Codona: Leading campaign
Which is what happened with Woodside. When 28 families, led by the Codonas, clubbed together to buy the caravan site in 1997, they thought they had found what they needed.

"We were roaming up and down," said Cliff. "But I was listening carefully to people like Tony Blair and what he was saying about how important his family was to him personally.

"We thought we now had a chance to get somewhere."

"We wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing. I didn't want my grandchildren growing up branded thieves and vagabonds."

A baby at Woodside
Children: Improved access to health care
The Gypsies saw Woodside as a way to provide cultural security to its residents while recognising obligations to wider society.

The plan was for a part travelling, part settled community, managed by those living there.

It was, in their view, a halfway point between the cultural anchors of the Gypsy travelling traditions and the pressure from mainstream society to settle.

Many of the parents saw Woodside as a way of getting their children into full-time education. There were plans for a community centre which, among other things, would improve access to health workers.

For instance, at least a dozen children born at Woodside have been among the first in their families to get the key childhood vaccinations at the right times. There was only one problem: Woodside was not lawful.

Legal battles

Before it was sold to the Gypsies, Woodside had planning permission for a number of permanent buildings, such as a toilet block.

Mid Bedfordshire district council says that Gypsies did not adequately seek or subsequently have approval for any work which would turn a former holiday park into a permanent settlement.

In response, the Gypsies argued that a touring holiday park was effectively a permanent site with a higher density of residents than they themselves wanted.

Earlier this year, the families lost this battle in the High Court and the council has set an eviction date of 4 November.

The costs of the eviction could be as high as 180,000, though it is unclear if the council will seek to recover this from the Gypsies by seizing property.

So even though the families own the land, they do not have the legal right to live on it.

The gypsies say that they are victims of discrimination.

A spokesman for the council said that it is simply enforcing planning laws applicable to all. It points out that government inspectors have dismissed almost a dozen appeals by the Gypsies.

Time running out

Since then, the mood at Woodside has been grim. Many of the families have already cut their losses and gone, even though Woodside is something of a cause celebre among travelling communities and their supporters.

A sign for Woodside caravan park
Woodside: Started as holiday park
The original residents still at Woodside say they will not leave and are prepared to barricade themselves in.

A number of travelling families unconnected to the original project have arrived as word went around that there were plots available away from the roadside - precisely the kind of instability Woodside's founders say they set out to end.

"We came to Woodside because we wanted freedom to be who we are but also respect from the rest of society," said Cliff Codona.

"The rest of society doesn't want us to roam up and down, not least because that means we don't pay taxes.

"So when we do try and settle, we come up against a horrific situation like this. I'd be the first to admit that we got some of this wrong, not least in our understanding of the law.

"People have got to take time to get to know each other. There are a lot of people who don't understand us or our culture.

"But evicting us will send us back in time, and we will resist it absolutely."

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28 Nov 01 | Scotland
27 Jun 01 | Scotland
14 Feb 02 | England
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