Sunday 11 September 2011

Hypocrisy In Basildon Council’s Approach To Planning Regulation


In a move described as ‘totally undemocratic’ by local Councillor Geoff Williams, Basildon Council suddenly cancelled last night’s general council meeting, avoiding discussion of contentious plans for a major housing development – 500 houses – on environmentally sensitive green space, at Gloucester Park.

Citing inexplicable ‘public safety reasons’ and ‘exceptional circumstances…at Dale Farm’ for the last minute cancellation, it appears Basildon Council fears exposure of blatantly hypocritical planning decisions.

The council meeting was intended to focus on the controversial development of green space at Gloucester Park, a designated nature reserve, which was donated to the council on the condition that it would not be developed. A meeting planned to discuss selling off this green space for housing threatened to expose the inconsistent and discretionary nature of the Council’s planning decisions. The Council is attempting to justify making 90 families homeless to save a former scrap yard classed as ‘green belt’, while selling off valued green spaces for a major housing development project.

Councillor Williams said that as a result of the cancellation of this meeting “local people have been denied the right to protest, challenge, and scrutinise”. The Councillor added that this cancellation is on top of the complete closure of council offices from next week, with further meeting cancellations announced on 20th Sept, expressing concern that ‘so much will have to be caught up with…[and] some issues have time constraints’. However, the cancellation of the Gloucester Park meeting is being viewed particularly cynically.

Dale Farm resident and mother Mary said: "The council are prepared to agree to build on Gloucester Park, yet insists on evicting us from an old scrap yard. The council are prejudiced against us. It's one rule for settled people and another for travellers."

A supporter from Dale Farm, Jane Trevellion, added “the prejudicial nature of the council’s planning decisions are really obvious if you look at the history of the council’s planning decisions. There is no consistency: at Vange school, greenbelt was sold off under the direction of the government Planning Inspector, without much fuss from the council…before that there was a huge Homebase Development on the greenbelt. There are other developments proposed on highly valued green spaces at Kent View and Northlands. In the case of Dale Farm the ‘greenbelt’ was concreted and used for 30 years as a scrap yard and the council didn’t make any fuss. It is only since the Travellers arrived that the council has suddenly become protective of the greenbelt land at Dale Farm. The council’s claims of fairness under the law are entirely false. This is clearly about prejudice against the Traveller population and this kind of racial intolerance is totally wrong. The law is not applied equally and there is no fairness in that.”

According to the Commission for Racial Equality, more than 90% of Traveller planning applications are initially rejected. This compares to less than 20% of rejected applications for everybody else¹. Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are trapped in a web of overlapping, systemic failures to respect their customs and preferences.

Councillor Linda Williams for the Nethermayne ward added that the “Greenbelt is not sacrosanct, it was designated by people and people have the right to reconsider its boundaries.” Councillor Geoff Williams has also released a statement contesting the forced evictions at Dale Farm and saying that the green spaces and green belt of Basildon are far more threatened by the local authority and the planning inspectorate than by any incursions by Travellers. He described the use of public funds to forcibly evict families at Dale Farm as ‘mind-boggling’. He stated that “The council’s unremitting desire to protect the dubious qualities of the greenbelt at Dale Farm stands in stark contrast to its reluctance to pursue the designation of recognised wildlife sites as green belt, or to defend other existing pristine designations”

The Council is pursuing hugely costly forced evictions when suitable alternative plots have been identified by the Travellers at Church Road, Laindon which is owned by the Homes and Communities Agency and at Gardiners Lane South. A public enquiry is due on 22nd November to consider the Church Road site.

“In pursuing these forced evictions at this time Basildon council is taking unnecessarily brutal and overly hasty action, when a possible solution is just around the corner. Crucial meetings are due to take place which have a strong chance of finding alternative appropriate sites for the Travellers to move on to safely and without the associated costs of forced eviction” said Ann, a local resident and supporter of the Dale Farm community.

Helen, another supporter at Camp Constant added “this just shows the council doesn’t want a peaceful solution, they just want to hound the Travellers out of Basildon.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported² recently on these issues, saying that ‘Few local authorities have a policy for identifying, and dealing with, objections to planning applications that are or may be racist. This means racist representations are reaching planning committees, in breach of guidance from the Royal Town Planning Institute.’

The Localism Bill puts more power in the hand of deeply flawed local planning processes, further threatening both valued green spaces and reducing the chances that adequate suitable land will be found for Gypsies and Travellers.

On Saturday, 10th September at 1pm supporters of the Dale Farm community are gathering at Wickford train station and marching to Dale Farm. MEP of the East of England Richard Howitt will attend the rally, as will members of the Public and Commercial Services Union. Notifications on the Dale Farm Solidarity website are asking supporters coming to the demo on 10th Sept to “bring a sleeping bag and a toothbrush and stay for as long as you can.” Adding: “Our ability to stop this ethnic cleansing is now almost entirely down to numbers- so come on down!”




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