The mood on Dale Farm yesterday morning was one of quiet desperation. There was frustration and disbelief at the proceedings of the previous day, when the high court rejected a last-minute injunction to prevent the eviction of the 400-strong Traveller community from their site in the Essex greenbelt, declaring "the end of the road" for eight years of claim and counter-claim between the camp's residents and Basildon council.
"The judge said that he hated the never-ending litigation, but we hate it too," Candy Sheridan, who has been campaigning for Dale Farm since 2005, told me. "We hate the tiny threads of hope and the endless battles. All we want is an alternative site, but these people have nowhere to go. You wouldn't see hundreds of people walking out of their housing estate with a few bin bags peacefully."
So begins the largest single eviction to be undertaken in Britain in modern times. While the Dale Farm case has its own particular eccentricities, it can only be seen as part and parcel of a consolidated shift in coalition policy to further marginalise what is arguably the most aggressively disenfranchised ethnic minority in this country today. And it does nothing to set Britain apart from the systematic discrimination of the Roma people that has swept west across the continent since the EU's eastward expansion.
It is a habitual absurdity that our Gypsy and Traveller population is viewed as a national vexation out of all proportion to the numbers. Despite the hyperventilation about greenbelt land grabs and overrun roadside encampments, most communities are now settled – willingly or otherwise – in bricks and mortar. Only one third of the country's estimated 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers continue to live in legal camps, whether provided by a local authority or privately owned.
There remains, however, a shortfall of some 4,000 pitches, or about 25,000 individuals who are forced to lead their lives outside the law, not because it appeals to them temperamentally but because there is no provision for them to do so legally. This existence leaves them vulnerable to local anger, lawsuits and even violence.
The cycle of marginalisation prevails, even though research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that it would take as little as one square mile of land to serve this modest need.
With local council decision-making constrained by the joint compulsions of nimby and nimto (not in my term of office), provision has been edged out to isolated rural areas, where the settled population's experience of any ethnic minority is minimal, access to services like health and education limited and where, despite paying rent and council tax, tenants have no security of tenure or legally enforceable standards of maintenance.
Of course there is another side to this, and those living near – usually illegal – camps complain of noise, rowdiness and unhygienic conditions. But sites needn't be a nuisance if they're well managed. Fenland district council, which owns five sites in north Cambridgeshire, has pioneered an approach based on constructive engagement, recognising the community's historic connection to the area, holding training days for officials and local media, and providing Travellers with help to set up their own sites. Not only are hundreds of thousands of pounds saved on dealing with evictions and the environmental damage caused by unauthorised encampments, but solid community relations forged over a decade mean tensions over planning permission or waste collection remain in perspective.
There are a few optimists who hope that the Dale Farm eviction will mark a watershed in Britain's relationship to its Traveller population, and that the sight of weeks-old infants and an elderly woman on a nebuliser bulldozed out of their homes could galvanise the public and politicians to finally take the huge inequalities faced by this community seriously. But for most, it represents the early ache of a tightening vice.
As MP for the neighbouring constituency of Brentwood, Eric Pickles has made his opposition to Dale Farm plain. Now his localism bill, the legislative incarnation of the "big society", promises to outlaw retrospective planning permission, which has been virtually the only way Travellers have managed to get sites approved, and – crucially – removes regional targets for site provision, delegating the decision to local councils. But with councillors already held hostage by local prejudice, it's hard to imagine this practice of big-society logic offering anything other than a bigot's charter. And as local government cuts oblige every interest group to fight for scraps, the problem will only get worse.
Given the widespread ignorance of Gypsy and Traveller culture in this country, it is convenient to dismiss this community as childishly refusing to conform to the social and legal demands of a property-owning democracy. And it's easy to ignore the concessions many have already made, attempting to integrate into settled communities despite the hostility they encounter there, and travelling only in the holidays for the sake of their children's education .
In the spring Channel 4's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which portrayed the community at best as comedy vulgarians, unleashed a barrage of abuse that would have set the Twitterati aflame had it been directed at any other minority. Meanwhile, next Tuesday, more than 100 primary-age children on Dale Farm will be prevented from returning to their school, which has become a centre of excellence in recent years, and another generation will be taught that there is no place for them on this small island.
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