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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 03:40 GMT 04:40 UK
The battle for Gypsy land
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Campaigner Joe Jones digs into the ditch
Campaigner Joe Jones digs into the ditch
If you want to tell someone they are not welcome, try putting ton-weight concrete blocks in their way, backed by a two-metre high mud bank, supported by a High Court injunction.

The Essex village of Little Waltham, near Chelmsford, probably doesn't want to be known for the defences surrounding one of its fields. Its residents just want to get on with their lives.

And so do the Gypsy community who own, and previously lived on the same piece of land - until they were evicted under court order in January this year.

The "battle of Meadowlands" has become a cause celebre among the small band of campaigners who argue that the UK's most discriminated-against minority are Gypsies and travellers.

The eviction of 28 families was the second major removal of a Gypsy community from sites they own in the last 18 months.

At the same time, a grassroots movement to reform the law is continuing, supported by a number of charities, organisations and 100 MPs.

Site history

When a community of travellers tried to find their own land in 2001, they bought a field on the edge of the village.

The former entrance to the unauthorised Little Waltham caravan site
Former entrance: Concrete and mud banks
They put in services, concrete foundations and drives for their caravans. By September 2002, some 20 families were living on or using the site.

What they didn't do is put in a planning application as the law demands. When they did, it was rejected.

Three years and a 100,000 court battle later, Chelmsford Borough Council's bailiffs, backed by 100 police officers, removed the community.

There were angry scenes, a number of arrests and injuries and one caravan was destroyed by fire.

The community split up and Kathleen Buckland, owner of the destroyed caravan, temporarily moved in with her mother in Leicestershire.

Burning caravan
A day of conflict and mayhem in January 2004
Last weekend, a five months pregnant Mrs Buckland and her family returned, the idea being to get just one caravan back on the site by digging through the barriers.

But the council, in line with earlier court rulings, had won an injunction allowing it to block the road with concrete.

Beyond the mud banks put in place following the eviction, the land had been so extensively ploughed it was unsafe underfoot. In places there were drying pools of slurry and stagnant water.

Too upset by what they found, the Bucklands gave up and left. But their supporters stayed and, watched by police and bailiffs, dug for the sake of symbolism.

"The 12 families who were here have been travelling around the country just trying to find somewhere to stay," said Grattan Puxon of the Gypsy Council.

"If people can't live on their own land they end up living illegally on other people's plots or illegally by the road side."

Planning law not discrimination

For its part, the council says it appropriately used planning law to protect a rural landscape from unwarranted development.

Bridget Jones
Tax payers can't keep forking out for these kinds of situations - Gypsies should be given help from the authorities to end this once and for all
Bridget Jones, campaigner
Fair application of the law has nothing to do with discrimination, it says, and that it sought to help the group find alternative accommodation.

Many villagers support that view. None of those spoken to wished to be identified - but they all agreed they did not want the Gypsies back.

Complaints included noise, illegal dumping and vandalism. Some residents alleged more serious criminality but conceded they had not experienced it themselves.

Asked if they had met the evicted Gypsies, one resident said: "Are you serious? They were just not normal. Clash of cultures has nothing to do with it. If anyone had 15 families moving next door to them they would feel intimidated."

Familiar scene

While Little Waltham may have seen an end to this development, there seems little prospect of an end to the annual round of rows about rights of abode over Gypsy encampments.

Gypsy campaign: Hopes - but little optimism for change in the law
Last year a report for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott estimated the UK needs up to 2,000 more semi-permanent residential pitches for travelling communities - and a further network of 2,000 places to facilitate nomadic movement (see internet links).

Many local authorities insist they are already doing their bit. In fact, Little Waltham already has one official travellers' caravan park 100 yards away from the illegal site.

That well kept park is the home to 10 families.

All the plots are taken and the residents are unlikely to move. Some have children in local schools. Others say they fear not being able to find anywhere else to stop legally if they leave the site.

Over the past three years, the residents at that park have tried to keep their heads down. "Let's face it, there are bad Gypsies and good Gypsies - just like bad Gorgios [settled people] and good ones," said one mother.

"If you look at our caravan park it's tidier than the average council estate.

"They [villagers] may talk about fly-tipping from the other community but our experience is different. I have been woken up by cars from who knows where emptying rubbish on to our back field. Who do you think gets the blame?"

Bridget Jones of the National Travellers' Action Group said expectation of resistance from local residents had long convinced Gypsies the best thing they could do is pull on to land before seeking planning permission.

"The government encourages us to buy our own land and look what happens," she said.

"Tax payers can't keep forking out for these kinds of situations. Gypsy communities should be given proper help from the authorities to end this once and for all.

"If Gypsies are allowed to move on to a site and develop it as their home then things can change. "Children can break the silence between adults because they will always play with each other.

"And then when adults meet we realise we're all normal people. The only difference is you live in bricks and mortar and I live in a tin unit."

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Eviction 'a missed opportunity'
27 Jan 04  |  Essex
East: The battle of Little Waltham
29 Jan 04  |  Politics Show

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