The Law According to Vanessa

I realise that this might upset a few people, so some of you might want to pop out for the next five minutes.

Vanessa Redgrave and the grey cardigan of concern made an appearance in Essex this week. No doubt she feels strongly about the site clearance of land owned by Irish travellers at Dale Farm, and I applaud anyone who shows the courage of their convictions, but she’s not being entirely honest with us and has, as a consequence, annoyed me sufficiently to blog about it. Ms Redgrave insists that the travellers have not broken any law. She is wrong, and if this is the limit of her understanding of law she would be very well advised to stick to acting, because this is the real world and to transpose her distorted view onto it would set a very dangerous precedent.

The argument about Dale Farm has been rumbling on for a decade and is now so shrouded in melodramatic hogwash and human rights mumbo-jumbo that we need to get back to the core of the issue – planning law. Shorn of all the emotive issues being thrust into the headlines, let’s take a look at what has actually happened.

The site at Dale Farm has had a lawful traveller community on it, established with planning permission, for more than twenty years. In 2001 Irish travellers bought a further section of land and moved on to it. They began erecting permanent structures. When the local planning authority, Basildon Borough Council, became aware of the development of the land it served enforcement notices. This was ten years ago. The travellers brought legal action in an attempt to have these repealed, but this failed. In 2003 the First Secretary of State dismissed the appeals, but gave the travellers a period of two years in which to comply with the notices. In 2005, and since the notices had not been complied with, the Council decided that direct action was warranted. This decision was originally found by the High Court to have been unlawful, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal. The travellers sought the permission of the Court to appeal to the House of Lords, but this was refused in June 2009.

A primary function of planning law is the protection of the wider community from the excesses of the individual.

The right to own property is expressed in Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms enshrines the right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions. The much cited Article 8 of that Convention states that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

In exercise of UK planning law any local authority is required to be compliant with this. However, Article 8 is qualified as follows: “There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” This boils down to a local authority and the Courts having to take a broad view of any development and consider the rights of all residents.

There is a misconception held by some that if you own land you have the right to do with it what you will. Fine, we own our own house, we’ll build a four storey extension out the back and open a pig farm in the front garden. Wrong, on two counts. First is that we don’t have the money to do it and second because we would never get planning permission. Even if we did go ahead and do it the Council would either make us pull it all down or do it themselves and send us the bill. A primary function of planning law is the protection of the wider community from the excesses of the individual.

unless there are “very special circumstances” 

Nowhere in the UK is planning law more assiduously applied (and scrutinised) than in developments affecting the Green Belt. Within the Green Belt permission to carry out development is severely restricted and planning consent is only granted in a limited number of circumstances. These include:-

  • certain agricultural and forestry related building and uses.
  • outdoor sporting uses and essential ancillary facilities.
  • minor works to existing residential properties.
  • works of national interest or importance.

In the main the majority of proposals for development will only be granted planning permission if they can justify that there are “very special circumstances” why permission should be granted.

Clearly, the development at Dale Farm cannot meet any of the four criteria, but arguments were put forward that they should qualify under “very special circumstances”. These were considered in the proper manner by the Council and, more importantly, the competent Courts, and have all been dismissed.

they must be regarded as the authors of their own misfortune and we should not feel sorry for them

The crucial point to note is that the land in question has not suddenly been designated as Green Belt. It has been so since 1982. It may very well have been a scrap yard, but this, too, was established without planning permission and a planning Inspector had long ago ruled that it could not be used for that purpose again. The travellers admit that they bought the land at a very reasonable price. There’s a very good reason for this, i.e. that there are severe restrictions on what you can do with it. One phone call to the Council planning office was all it would have taken to find this out, unless, of course, they already knew. In this respect, therefore, they must be regarded as the authors of their own misfortune and we should not feel sorry for them.

Now, Vanessa, I hope you’re paying attention because this is the bit that shows that you were either ill-informed or, worse, deliberately telling porky-pies. At paragraph 7 of Basildon District Council v McCarthy & Ors [2009] EWCA Civ 13 (22 January 2009) it says:

For the claimants, Mr Luba QC accepts that the claimants have reached the end of the road in their attempts to regularise their position by obtaining planning permission or temporary planning permission. That has been considered on a plot by plot basis. The extreme difficulty involved in obtaining planning permission for caravan and trailer sites in the Green Belt is acknowledged. Mr Luba accepts that the claimants are on the land unlawfully and that, even if the appeal is dismissed, they will still be on land unlawfully. He accepts that the most recent planning decisions of the Secretary of State reflect the planning situation. He accepts that the council could lawfully evict each and every one of the claimants provided they lawfully and appropriately direct themselves.”

They have had a decade in which to rectify the situation. They have had some eighteen months since the dismissal of their last serious legal challenge. (I discount the attempt this week to gain a High Court injunction. That was mere legal frippery.) The travellers themselves admit that they are breaking the law and we should not feel sorry for them on that score either.

There has already been a great deal of emotive coverage of the plight of the travellers, and I suspect that this is just the first few drops of the deluge to come. Much of it is highly misleading. Their champion, Grattan Puxon, is rather good at grandstanding and a master of dissembling propaganda, even though his grasp of human rights law can be a bit shaky.

Pardon me while we dispel a few myths.

Firstly, this is not and never has been an eviction. It’s a site clearance. There’s a big difference. Eviction is defined as “action by a landlord that compels a tenant to leave the premises”. The travellers own the site, but, as discussed above, this does not give them the right to use it as they wish, to park caravans, to build, to cover it with concrete or tarmac or even to live there.

All the language so far used has been in terms of this having been done to the travellers, but this is far from the truth. Nobody forced them to buy Green Belt land, nobody forced them to flout planning law by moving onto it and erecting permanent structures. They did so by choice and any good lawyer could have explained the risks. And if you take that risk you really shouldn’t bleat about it when the chickens come home to roost.

One activist who has jumped on the bandwagon is reported as saying: “There is no way we are leaving them here to be attacked by the thugs who pass themselves off as bailiffs. Yes, we are preparing for battle and want here to be our fortress – What other option have these people been left with?” Well, they can leave peacefully. They have, after all, known for ten years that they shouldn’t be there. Police will be there to maintain order and if the bailiffs are allowed to do the job they are lawfully entitled to do there will be no need for any disorder. It is the travellers and their supporters who are talking the language of violence.

Just because you want to think the world’s against you doesn’t necessarily make it true.

A great deal has been made of the fact that 80 to 90% of planning applications made by travellers are rejected as opposed to only 20% of those made by the settled population. It is claimed that this is “racist” against the travellers. I have neither the time nor the energy to challenge the percentages, but I would definitely challenge the conclusion. If it were the case then the decisions would have been unlawful and could easily have been overturned by the Courts. (Sir Andrew Collins in his judgement FOR the travellers found that there was no direct discrimination (Para 47, [2008] EWHC 987 (Admin)).

There are other possible explanations. It could be that the settled population may be more inclined to take legal advice or consult the local planning office before submitting an application. It could be that applications for development by the settled population are not on the same scale as Dale Farm. It could just as easily be that a high proportion of applications by travellers are destined to fail, like Dale Farm,  because the use of the land is restricted. It could be all three, but when you’re waging a propaganda war it’s far easier to jump on the figures and claim prejudice. Clearly, applications from travellers DO succeed as is evidenced by the fact that part of Dale Farm is occupied lawfully. Just because you want to think the world’s against you doesn’t necessarily make it true.

There can be no doubt that there is often opposition from the settled population to having travellers in their community. Some travellers can be very aggressive and intimidating. Some leave loads of rubbish behind them. I speak from personal experience and, like it or not, it’s a fact. (Some of the settled population display these traits as well, but police and local Councils seem more inclined to pursue enforcement action against those with a fixed address – a form of discrimination in itself!) The unlawfully resident travellers at Dale Farm would like you to believe that they are none of these things and that they have improved the site.

They maintain that it’s not a tip. I beg to differ and the pictures speak for themselves. They are of the access road to the unlawful section of Dale Farm, but a pound to a pinch of shit says they didn’t bring Vanessa or the Bishops in that way.

When the settled population see scenes like this it is easier to understand a reluctance to suffer it in your own back yard. (By the way – I’m not making this up. Go to Google Earth or Google Maps for co-ordinates 51° 35’ 44.86” N  0° 28’ 26.68” E and look at street view.)

Then there is the tactic of making false comparisons. Candy Sheridan, who has been campaigning for Dale Farm since 2005, is on record as saying “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.” Well, no, you wouldn’t see it because the estate was built lawfully with planning permission. Has it never occurred to Candy, in the six years that she has been watching the campaign fail, that it might be a good idea to line up an alternative? Certainly, Grattan Puxon and Vanessa seem to think that there are alternatives, but they also insist that it’s the Council’s responsibility to provide them. My understanding is that Basidlon Council has made numerous offers of alternatives to the travellers, but all have been rejected because they don’t match exactly what they’re demanding. Well, life’s tough and you don’t always get what you want!

There’s always God. (I’m afraid that this one REALLY gets up my nose.) The travellers always want to present themselves as good God fearing folk. It’s a shame for them that their actions speak louder than their words. Has the local priest never pointed them to Romans 13:1-7. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

In a famous passage about taxes, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:13-17; the same passage appears, slightly modified, in Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26). This is interpreted by most people to mean that in secular matters follow the law of the land, but for spiritual matters follow the law of God. Nuff said about that.

the Council admit that if the travellers are moved they are unlikely to leave the borough let alone the county

More sinister is the claim that the clearance of Dale Farm is “ethnic cleansing”. The official United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.” This is Essex, for crap’s sake – there’s nothing homogenous up there. In any case, the Council admit that if the travellers are moved they are unlikely to leave the borough let alone the county. It’s a ridiculous argument from start to finish. But it is part of the propaganda war that will see mothers, who have for years colluded in the unlawful occupation, pleading for the education and future of their children while putting those same children in the centre of the site clearance. (If you don’t believe me go to Youtube and search for Gypsy eviction. You will find numerous examples of kids being involved and it will not have been the bailiffs who put them in harm’s way).

And finally there’s the claim that the travellers are law-abiding. Pearl McCarthy, who lives at Dale Farm, has said “We’ll do everything by the law. We won’t do anything to break the law until they force us to break it.” (See video six minutes in.)[youtube width=”214″ height=”172″][/youtube]Well, first off, the claim is spurious. If they were law abiding they wouldn’t have built in the first place.  Nobody will force you to break any more laws, Pearl. That will be your choice. But it’s a rather curious logic, isn’t it? Use the law when it’s to your advantage, but discard it when it provides a decision that you don’t like? It seems the travellers want the rights of every citizen to the protection of law without exercising the concomitant responsibility to obey it.

And this leads me to my final and most important point – if law be not enforced then it be no law at all.

the law must be enforced and the site must be cleared

In Fred Zinnemann’s stunning 1966 film A Man for All Seasons Vanessa’s brother Corin played William Roper, a young lawyer. He has the following exchange with Thomas More:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Yes, I’ve quoted that before, and with good cause, because law is what makes society work. In fact, in one form or another, it’s the only thing that does. Remove the law, or fail to enforce it, and you can kiss goodbye to everything that you hold dear.

For that reason alone the law must be enforced and the site must be cleared.