Guest post from the Traveller Solidarity Network
Last October at Dale Farm we saw the largest and most expensive forced eviction in recent British history. Basildon Council Leader Tony Ball and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles managed to find many £millions for this historic feat. In the brutal process 82 families were made homeless and left to live in appalling and overcrowded conditions. A council was also left worse off and with a swollen homeless population. This is still the case today.
However at the end of January the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU), a London based ‘think-tank’, nominated Tony Ball for the award of ‘Council Leader of the Year’ . The award is supposed to honour Councillors who have ‘made a huge difference to their communities’ and on this measure Ball does not fall short. Having made 82 families homeless using precious council funding, he has had to push through considerable hikes in rents and cuts to disability services. But I sense this is not what the LGIU mean when they say ‘huge difference’. As the Guardian journalist Hugh Muir put it they seem to have exhibited comic timing ‘not seen since the demise of Eric Morecombe’.
And yet there is something serious that underlies this nomination; the idea that the systematic and state-led oppression of this minority is somehow okay, indeed something to be celebrated if done ‘effectively’. The ‘huge difference’ the LGIU appear to be commending is the removal of Travellers from their local community. The inequality faced by Traveller and Gypsy communities in the UK should be of no surprise to anyone. Aside from their extensive economic inequality, Travellers and Gypsies die far earlier than the rest of the population and have higher suicide rates .
The disingenuous claim that the eviction of Dale Farm simply sought to uphold the law and ‘apply it equally’ is made by the national and local governments time and again. Yet research has shown that only 10% of Travellers are successful in planning applications, as opposed to an 80% national average . This is a story that chimes with almost all Travellers or Gypsies you speak to. Councils and a few, vocal N.I.M.B.YS will bark loud enough to hound them out. Basildon Council must find 62 plots in Basildon according to its planning inspectors, yet the likelihood of them doing so remains unlikely. Local councils in the UK are falling criminally short of their legal duties to Travellers and Gypsies. Like the families at Dale Farm, far too many Travellers have nowhere to go.
And so we at the Traveller Solidarity Network were astounded to hear that Tony Ball’s efforts to reaffirm all this inequality and injustice could be recognised as in any way positive. The brutal eviction from their homes was bad enough but this is salt in the wound for those homeless families at Dale Farm. It’s also an insult to all Traveller and Gypsy communities across the UK who face discrimination everyday. It’s even an insult to the disabled and those in social housing in Basildon whose services were cut in order to pay for such expensive intolerance. Indeed we are grateful for the support of Basildon Uncut in our fight [see photo].
But as we’ve shown at Dale Farm, and as UK Uncut have shown across the UK, being active can make a difference. The public’s understanding of the plight of Gypsy and Traveller communities in the UK is today far richer than it was six months ago. Whether it be on Traveller rights or cuts to public services we have shown over the last year or so that we don’t just have a right to protest; we have a right to resist.
This is why the Traveller Solidarity Network has decided to call a protest outside the awards ceremony to highlight the insult the LGIU have caused. Instead of the LGIU’s offensive ‘joke’ we intend to award Tony Ball personally with the gong for ‘Community Wrecker of the Year’. We invite everyone to come down and show support for the Gypsy and Traveller communities across the UK and for the idea that a local council should support its community, not tear it apart. Those horrible days in October were ones that shamed this country. We cannot let that be whitewashed!
The protest will take place on Monday 27th February at 7pm outside Westminster City Hall 64 Victoria Street London SW1E 6QP.
 The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (2009). http://tinyurl.com/75ssdrg
 ACERT and Wilson M. 1997. Directory of Planning Policies for Gypsy Site Provision. Bristol: Policy Press