Page last updated at 01:26 GMT, Saturday, 1 August 2009 02:26 UK

'Why should I live by Gypsies?'

By Helen Grady
Producer, Beyond Westminster

Entrance to Dale Farm site, Crays Hill, Essex.
Dale Farm residents have threatened to barricade themselves on site

Every year millions of pounds are spent by local councils on evicting Gypsies and travellers from illegal camp sites. The government thinks the answer is to create more authorised sites, but who should decide where they go?

Len Gridley has some problems with his neighbours. The first is that there are 1,000 of them. The second is that they have set up what has become Europe's biggest illegal traveller site next to his back garden.

"All I want is for the council to clear the site," said Mr Gridley as he showed the 8ft fence he has fitted to separate his garden from his neighbours' homes.

"Who wants to live next to a Gypsy and traveller site? My house used to be worth £500,000 and now it's worth £150,000. No one wants to live here. People have sold up at a loss just to get away."

The site is in Cray's Hill, a picturesque village in the Essex countryside, which has become the focus of a planning row that is likely to cost the local council £3m.

Illegal settlement

The site backing onto Mr Gridley's bungalow is known as Dale Farm. It is owned by Gypsies and Irish Travellers, some of whom have been living there since the 1970s.

Grattan Puxon, a spokesman for the Dale Farm Residents, said the site expanded after some families bought an old scrap yard adjoining the original site. "As the families got bigger, they believed it was a quite a reasonable idea to clean up the old scrap yard and move onto it," he explained.

Jean Sheridan
This is somewhere for us to live, plus somewhere for us to get our kids looked after in the lines of doctors and dentists and education
Jean Sheridan, traveller

But only half of the Dale Farm site has planning permission and more than 400 people are facing eviction following a ruling by the Law Lords in May.

Basildon District Council, has spent almost £1m on the legal battle to evict the Travellers and set aside another £2m to pay for bailiffs to clear the illegal section of the site.

Council leader Tony Ball said it was worth the cost, adding "It's quite clear - they are living on green belt land without planning permission. UK law says that site has to be restored to green belt. What price upholding the law? The alternative is anarchy."

But families at Dale Farm claim they have nowhere else to go. And, although they are travellers by birth, they say they need a base.

"I don't know how to read or write," said Jean Sheridan, a mother-of-four. "I've been brung up like a proper traveller - travelling from site to site and on the roads constantly, so I never got the chance to go to school and get an education.

"This is somewhere for us to live, plus somewhere for us to get our kids looked after in the lines of doctors and dentists and education and things like that."

"I'd be happy to move if they could find us another site," added a neighbour, who asked not to be named. "But nobody wants us, so where are they going to put us?"

Political dilemma

That is a dilemma politicians have been grappling with for decades. So far, a solution seems elusive. Although most Gypsies and travellers live in authorised sites, it still costs councils in England at least £18m a year to evict people from illegal sites.

Beyond Westminster is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 1 August 2009 at 1100 BST
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Or download the programme podcast

The government thinks the best way to cut these costs is to create more authorised sites and is offering councils £32m each year in grants for these sites.

There is some evidence to suggest this approach could work. Kent has 17 council-run sites across the county and has slashed its eviction costs by 80%.

But other local authorities have proved reluctant even to identify Gypsy and traveller sites, never mind creating council-run ones.

In England, each region must agree how many sites each local council will set aside for Gypsies and travellers in a document called the Regional Spatial Strategy.

However, some councils are threatening to take legal action rather than agreeing, even in principle, to provide what they see as "more than their fair share."

Candy Sheridan, a Liberal Democrat councillor in North Norfolk and a member of an Irish Traveller family, said a big part of the problem is that even authorised sites are unpopular with the settled community.

"There is no ideal site," said Ms Sheridan. "I sit on a planning committee and whenever the word Gypsy or traveller comes in, you get hundreds of people coming to public meetings and everybody is goaded up to say no to planning permission.

"Councillors who have signed up to creating new sites have lost their seats. What you have to do is take the responsibility away from local politicians."

At the moment, even though councils must assess the housing needs of Gypsies and travellers and have a strategy for meeting those needs, there is no legal duty to provide sites.

Dale Farm
Basildon Council has set aside 2m to clear the illegal section of the Dale Farm site

Labour MP Clive Betts, a member of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, thinks that should change.

He told the BBC: "I think a lot of local authorities would welcome a statutory duty to have to do something because at least then they can go to their residents and say, 'we have to do something, let's find the best sites'."

Extra sites

But shadow local government spokesman Bob Neil said such decisions should be made at a local level and that the Conservatives would scrap the Regional Spatial Strategy.

Meanwhile Basildon District Council is advertising for bailiffs to evict the illegal Dale Farm residents and councillors are resisting calls to provide an extra 60 Gypsy and traveller pitches as part of the Regional Spatial Strategy.

Said Coun Ball: "If every authority in the country took an additional seven pitches that would deal with the demand that's out there at the moment.

"We would take seven extra pitches. But it is inequitable that, while Basildon already provides a 100, some are not providing any."

Beyond Westminster is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 1 August at 1100 BST. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer. Or download the programme podcast.

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