Lancashire’s Dale Farm
On the day that the goverment gives a Tory council at least £18 million in taxpayer money for the forced eviction of travellers from Dale Farm in Essex, it is worth reprising the history of a Tory council which has, for many years and in contravention of any democratic norm, opposed the eviction of travellers from an illegal site.
It is now getting on for four years since West Lancashire Borough Council’s Planning Committee made the decision (17 January 2008) that an enforcement notice for the clearance a traveller caravan site bang next to the M58 motorway in Skelmersdale, but in greenbelt land, should be executed.
The site is in the ownership of the residents, and has been developed (hardstandings etc.) and occupied without planning permission for some years previous.
Specifically, the planning committee stated in its decision:
That no time extension be granted for compliance with enforcement notice E/2004/0050.’
That was early 2008. On two separate occasions since then, this decision by democratically elected local councillors has been ignored by the council administration.
First, in October 2008, a confidential report was brought to the planning committee setting out why the decision could not be enforced, and seeking a further extension on the enforcement period to 31 December 2009. I cannot comment on what that report contained, other than to say they related to specific personal circumstances.
Then, in 2010, and nearly two months after the revised notice should have been enforced, a further confidential report was brought to planning committee, seeking another 12 month deferral until December 2010, bringing it to three years since the original decision to clear the site.
This was voted through by the Tory majority on planning.
It might seem odd, in the light of Dale Farm events, that a council under Tory control should go to such lengths not to enforce a planning committee decision relating to a traveller site. But this is where the plot thickens.
The reason given for the second deferral was that, because a permanent site for travellers and gypsies needed to be established somewhere in West Lancashire anyway under the government’s (2006) planning policy guidance on the establishment of permanent, managed sites for gypsies and travellers, it is now not worth removing this site because it was likely to be adopted (with planning permission) as the new permanent site under this policy anyway.
Thus, a consistent refusal by the current users of the site to seek planning permission on greenbelt land, and a consistent refusal to comply with enforcement notices was now being handsomely rewarded by the Tory administration by seeking to award it permanent status through the cynical use of the 2006 planning guidance.
More importantly, such a cynical move made a total mockery of the due democratic process of identifying where a suitable permanent site should be placed, through the development of the next West Lancashire Local Development Plan and in the context of the North West Regional Spatial Strategy Partial Review.
It is clear that the administration was keen that it should be at the M58 site, because it was a politically expedient move. Put simply, it means that it could ‘tick the boxes’ for provision of a permanent site without having to go anywhere near the proper process of actually identifying the most suitable location for a site.
Naturally, it is very far from clear whether a site bang next to a motorway, cut off by it from the town, and in private ownership by one particular section of the traveler community, is in fact the most appropriate site in a large borough.
In terms of travellers’ own needs, it is a long way from services e.g. schools, and there are also legitimate questions to be asked, given the current ownership, of whether the wider traveling community will ever have any access to the site – this being a key rationale for the whole site identification process.
None of these issues were examined, because the Tory administration was not interested in the findings.
The Tories’ democratically illegitimate decision is likely to mean, in time, more illegal use of sites by travellers, not less, as travellers coming to the area find no legal site for them to stay at. Thus, the whole idea that local tensions might be lessened through the difficult but necessary process of identifying permanent sites is subverted, with tensions likely to rise instead.
Instead of seeking a sensible preventative way forward through the provision of legal sites, the Tories’ (national) solution is simply to criminalize travellers unable to find a legal site.
And hence…..Dale Farm