Corporate Watch | 18.11.2009 18:57 | Repression
As part of a larger traveller site on Oak Lane in Crays Hill, Billericay, Dale Farm has been home to Roma and travellers since the 1960's, when the first group of Roma settled there. During the l970's, a number of families were granted planning permission by the then Labour-controlled Basildon Council and by 1996 there were some 40 properties on the site owned by travellers.
The l994 Criminal Justice Act not only 'relieved' local authorities of the duty to provide caravan parks to travellers, a duty imposed by the l968 Caravan Sites Act, but also increased police powers, under Section 62, to evict travellers attempting to camp on roadsides or car parks. The Conservative government at the time advised travellers to buy the land they had been living on to 'avoid trouble'. Indeed, relatives of those settled on Oak Lane bought an old scrap-yard and other adjacent greenbelt land, including Dale Farm.
Dale Farm was divided into 52 plots and accommodated some 70 families. The number of residents has since grown considerably with approximately 1,000 men, women and children now living on the site. This expansion has been due to evictions in other parts of Essex, in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire where travellers lost land they had bought because local councils refused to grant them planning permission.
In 2005, Basildon District Council, together with Tory MP John Baron, started a campaign to "rid the district of travellers," as a local newspaper put it at the time. Needless to say, the issue has been exploited by a plethora of politicians to win votes, from the Conservatives, through Labour, to the BNP. The district council is now Conservative-controlled.
All planning applications for plots on Dale Farm were refused and three public inquiries were held. The travellers' appeals to government eventually resulted in a temporary stay for two years. In May 2005, however, Basildon Council voted to spend up to £4 million on 'direct action eviction' under Section 127 of the Town and Country Planning Act, not only of Dale Farm but also of other traveller families living at Hovefields Avenue, Wickford. The Essex County Council has even drawn up a plan to allegedly take more than 100 children at Dale Farm into temporary care as a means of pressuring their families to leave Basildon, or Essex altogether.
In May 2008, the Dale Farm eviction was put on hold when the High Court issued an injunction against the eviction, ruling that the council had failed to offer an alternative site. The council also took later decisions concerning two other sites and these were subsequently included in the same judicial proceedings. In January 2009, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court ruling, paving the way for an imminent eviction. An application to the House of Lords to appeal the decision made by the Court of Appeal has recently been refused.
It is worth noting that the Dale Farm case has been registered with the United Nations Advisory Group on Forced Evictions, which has even sent a special team to monitor the eviction. The Children's Commissioner has also written to the council to enquire about its plans to avoid further traumatising the 150 or so children living on the site and to determine what alternative accommodation it has to offer them. The council has not been able to provide any answers, even though a 'huge re-housing process' is allegedly underway. According to the travellers, only two or three families have so far been offered accommodation in the form of houses, which the families have refused, saying, as travellers, they do not want to live in houses but want land instead. Richard Bennett, a Tory Surrey councillor who chaired the Local Government Association's 'Gypsy and Traveller Task Group' between 2004 and 2007, when it was disbanded, has been appointed as a 'mediator'. The council, however, does not seem to be interested in 'solutions' other than forcible eviction. By its own admission, "a number of other options were available" to Basildon's Development Control and Traffic Management Committee when it met on 5th June 2007. Nevertheless, they decided by four votes to one that "direct action”, namely eviction, “offered the only effective and lasting way to deal with this serious breach of planning control within the green belt."
'Specialists in gypsy evictions'
On 14th July 2005, Basildon Council voted to spend a minimum of £1.9 million to evict about 500 men, women and children living on Dale Farm. The eviction has been on hold for four years due to legal proceedings but, now with legal obstacles removed, there is a likely candidate to win the lucrative contract: 'specialist' bailiff firm, Constant & Company, a company used by the council for previous traveller evictions. In addition to the £1.9 million, it is estimated that the accompanying police operation will cost £1 million, which will come from public funds.
Constant & Co. describes itself as "the most experienced" and "busiest" company in the country in recovering possession of land from "unwanted trespassers." Searching online for the company, one finds it pointedly accompanied by the tagline "gypsy & traveller evictions”. Through such brutal evictions as the infamous Meadowlands and Twin Oaks evictions in 2004, Constant & Co. has gained itself a reputation as the country's most notorious anti-traveller bailiff firm. Its other services include squatter evictions, commercial rent recovery and local authority enforcement actions. It also provides private investigation services, including criminal and civil investigations, surveillance and tracing. In relation to the latter, the company's website boasts that its "dedicated specialist staff" are able to meet "new challenges", such as the Data Protection Act and Human Rights Act, which "have made it increasingly difficult to conduct successful tracing." Through "blending" the latest technology with traditional investigative techniques, they claim to have achieved "impressive results" in this field. Some of the company's directors and 'core employees' are former police officers, while the rest of its teams of bailiffs are civilian employees bonded and certificated by county courts.
Established in 1973, Constant & Co. is the trading name of Constant and Company (Bedford) Limited, registered in England and Wales with registered number 1899428. Previously known as Constant & Co. (Cambridge) Ltd., it is a relatively small private company limited by shares. By 12th March 2009, the company had issued 100 shares, each worth £100. Of these, 99 shares are owned by director Brian Denys George Constant, with the other share held by co-director Brian Edward Lecoche. Constant's registered office is 136-140 Bedford Road, Kempston, Bedford, MK42 8BH, but its head office is located at 66 Harpur Street, Bedford, MK40 2RA. It also has a 'fully computerised' processing centre in Milton Keynes (163 Queensway, Bletchley, MK2 2DZ) and two smaller offices in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire.
Needless to say, Constant & Co. has earned millions of pounds over the years removing travellers from land they live on, and in some cases own, in mostly unlawful, cowboy-style operations around the country. Its most recent accounts show that its net current assets at the end of 2008 were almost £1.2 million.
Constant & Co. markets itself by arguing that court proceedings can be "extremely expensive" and "involve delay." Thus, "a fast alternative course of action" that the company regularly deploys and that has allegedly been "very successful" with many high-profile clients is for bailiffs to forcibly take 'legal' possession of an occupied site, usually within 24 to 48 hours of being instructed, then arrange for tow trucks and cleansing contractors, if needed. Constant & Co.'s contractors include G Moore Haulage Ltd., which is based in Bedford, and WFL Recovery, which is based in Cambridge.
During last year's High Court appeal, the Dale Farm Housing Association submitted a detailed dossier, comprising 26 pages, photographs and video footage, about Constant & Co.'s conduct during the Hovefields eviction three years ago. The evidence showed that Constant had ignored health and safety regulations, such as carrying out operations with heavy machinery while children were present and failing to enclose demolition sites with fencing. Constant is also known to have smashed travellers' caravans and mobile homes and, on one occasion, ignored a High Court injunction not to enter a traveller-owned property. The dossier was also sent to the Ministry of Justice, the Bailiffs Association and Constant itself, but there has been no response. The council questionnaire sent to Constant recently in preparation for the Dale Farm eviction asks how the company has responded to complaints in the past - it would certainly be interesting to know the answer.
During the May 2008 hearing, the High Court judge, having watched a video of a previous Constant eviction, said it was "inappropriate" for Basildon Council to continue using Constant & Co. However, everything indicates that it will continue to do so. Furthermore, it has recently surfaced that Basildon Council, along with its contracted bailiffs, has failed to produce Risk Assessment reports for previous evictions, such as the one at Hovefields, or as part of the planning for the Dale Farm eviction.
Of course, Constant & Co. is by no means the only bailiff company offering its 'services' to local authorities to deal with what the industry happily terms “the gypsy problem”. For instance, Civil Enforcement Agent, a bailiff company based in Kent and whose clients include many large multinational blue-chip companies, states on its website that "court action [to remove travellers] is expensive and takes several weeks... so why not use a bailiff?" The company goes on to 'explain': "The longer they stay, the dirtier the area."
1st Class Bailiffs Limited, another bailiff company based in Darlington, Durham, uses a similar marketing argument: "Our procedure is much quicker and cheaper than going for a court order." Hatwel Services, which has acted on behalf of various district and county councils in south-east England, goes even further: "We are the only bailiff company that can offer a one-stop-shop solution to your traveller/gypsy problems." As "specialists in the business of evictions of travellers and gypsies," they offer "a complete eviction and a clear-up service."
Other bailiff companies in the travellers eviction business include Alpha Collections (based in Crawley), Safeguard Bailiff Services (Leicester), Secure Site UK (Worthing), Maltaward (West Sussex), Uniqwin (Warrington), M.S. Webb and Co. (Surrey) and UK Bailiff Company (Kent). It is worth noting that almost none of these companies is a member of the Enforcement Services Association, formerly known as the Certificated Bailiffs Association, which currently has around 30 corporate members.
During seven years of legal battles, scores of protests by the Dale Farm travellers and their supporters have taken place. To coincide with the Basildon cabinet meeting on 10th December 2009, incidentally International Human Rights Day, a public demonstration and rally has been called outside the district council offices at the Basildon Centre. No Borders London is organising an info night on 3rd December at the London Action Resource Centre (LARC) in Whitechapel to mobilise for the rally and resistance to the possible eviction.
Grattan Puxon, a spokesperson for the Save Dale Farm campaign, told Corporate Watch that a request by Dale Farm mothers to address the cabinet meeting has been turned down. The council's Corinna Hill told the Dale Farm Homeless Mothers' Committee that the reason for declining their request is that "agenda items about business and financial matters are exempt from public disclosure." Another request by the Dale Farm Housing Association to mount an exhibition at the Basildon Centre to mark Human Rights Day has also been refused. The pictures, however, will be displayed as part of an expo that will tell the story of the brutal treatment of Roma from 1939 to 2009, including the Nazi genocide which took the lives of 500,000 Roma.