As a Traveller, I am sickened by the nomination of Tory council leader Tony Ball for the "Leader of the Year" award organised by the Local Government Information Unit and investment advisors CCLA.
Ball, the leader of Basildon council, is being cheered on for masterminding the brutal mass evictions from the Dale Farm Travellers’ site in Essex last October at the cost of some £7m taxpayers’ money.
I was an eye-witness to the military-style assault. Police infantry attacked the back fence while their brass hats spoke to Traveller reps at the front gate. Wielding iron bars and Tasers, they broke through the fence, and smashed their way through men, women and children to link up with officers who attacked from the front. Then they brought in reinforcements to allow bailiffs to enter the site for the first time.
Bailiffs soon set to removing those people who had locked on to cars, trucks and concrete blocks to try delay the now inevitable. They did this with a screen raised around the people to hide their rough handling of protesters. The residents and their supporters, in an attempt to avoid more violence, left the site within 24 hours, marching arm in arm as a police helicopter hovered, all under the eyes of world’s press.
Within days, the fences separating the pitches were gone despite the court order that they were to remain. Chalets and caravans were demolished by diggers and bulldozers and deep craters hollowed out in the pitches people still had a legal right to access, while those that those deemed illegal were barely touched!
Water and sewer pipes were deliberately smashed. People who had the right to be still on site were intimidated off while the police stood idly by and only acted if a bailiff was resisted in their bullying! The world media watched as Essex police tarnished the name of Britain while acting as agents of the council!
Just what was it all for and about?
Well, in a nutshell, people bought an old scrap yard which was next to a Traveller site. They were led to believe by council officials, who have since denied it, that any planning application would be received favourably. But it was not.
So, after striving for a decade to remain in their homes, they were finally told to leave by the High Court. That was only after a huge effort to try convince the law that Dale Farm residents needed a home. Children were born, people passed away and life went on there until that day in October.
This was and remains a complex matter: Does a scrap yard on land suddenly became important Green Belt land when Travellers move onto it! Wrecker of the year Ball has never answered this issue, although it has emerged that council was drawing up a list of Green Belt land that could be developed in the Basildon area before, during and after the eviction of Dale Farm!
And indeed, soon after the eviction, the council okayed an application to build a dogs’ home with two houses on Green Belt land a mile or so away from Dale Farm! Prime Green Belt land is okay for a dogs’ home, but disputed Green Belt land which once housed a scrap yard is not suitable for Travellers!
The issue of Dale Farm has proved divisive. But the question people might ask themselves is: Do planning laws supersede basic human rights? Think about that when Ball is sitting amongst local government bigwigs next week, hoping he will be crowned “Leader of the Year”.
Traveller Solidarity Network member and national spokesperson of the Irish Traveller group Pavee Advise Assist Direct (PAAD)
Travellers are calling on supporters to join them to protest against Ball’s nomination at 7pm, Monday, February 27 outside Westminster City Hall. More details.