The Dale Farm affair

An old scrapyard near Basildon, Essex, is not normally a site that would draw international attention and be at the center of a major social and political controversy crossing traditional lines of interest. But when Basildon council decided to request and enforce an eviction order against a Traveller community living on the site known as Dale Farm, it became the focus of activists and political bodies from comrade Vanessa Redgrave CBE to the United Nations. The Traveller community of Dale Farm, some 90 families strong, owns the land legally but occupies half of it without a planning permit for building. Basildon Council points out that the site is officially on a greenbelt site, and therefore no planning permission can be granted despite appeals by the Travellers present there. The greenbelt, after all, was created as a purposely ‘undeveloped’ and non-urban space to preserve open land around the heavily urbanized southeast of England, in particular London and the ring of commuter towns around it. Furthermore, the council claims it is already hosting more Traveller sites than any other nearby borough (although it does not define this) and therefore feels it is being unfairly portrayed as hostile to vulnerable people. What to do?

It is not the specifics of the case that make it interesting as a political question. After all, the law is clearly on the side of Basildon Council, while at the same time humanity seems on the side of the Travellers. After all, even a government inspector noted that there is a distinct lack of Traveller sites in the general area and significant overpopulation. There are no particular indications that the Traveller presence causes problems in other ways, the children attend local schools, and so forth. What makes the case interesting is the ramifications it has in terms of a conflict between political interests that have in the last decades been increasingly allied: left-wing political sentiments and environmentalist ones. After all, any socialist worth their salt is naturally inclined to defend a vulnerable, often exploited people on the margins of society against the authority of a borough council in Essex trying to prevent them from living in the homes they maintain on unused land. But on the other hand, many on the left would in general also be inclined to support the notion of the green belt, and the necessity for preserving open landscape to preserve the ecosystem, for walking and cycling and other forms of enjoyment of open space, and to restrain the limitless hunger of some city councils for covering all England in asphalt for the benefit of dreary ‘new town’ shopping malls. That makes this an unusually direct case of the interest of the human against the interest of the natural.

It will be no secret that the present author thinks the green-red coalition, to put it in contemporary terms, that has formed in the last 40 years or so is an important step forward for a more comprehensive and scientific political understanding of how to achieve a socialist society. But this test case, so to speak, demonstrates the limits to the potential this alliance has. A shortage of housing, especially when it redounds to the discomfort of the poorest and most marginalized groups in the country, is a very serious issue for any socialist. The United Kingdom has suffered from a dramatic underinvestment in public housing construction since the days of the Thatcher government, and the slow deflation of the housing price bubble will do nothing to allay these issues for those not ranked as middle class. One may like or dislike the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Travellers; certainly, from the point of view of the full development of the individual there serious problems with the isolated and patriarchal nature of some of the culture of this group. But that is not germane to the current case, as there is no indication of any hostility towards the society of Basildon generally on the part of the Travellers, merely a desire to live as they have done for a considerable amount of time. The site itself is indeed in unmistakably green land, but is also a former scrapyard, which implies that even the pretense of unsullied nature would be hard to maintain for Basildon council or the town’s visitors – while of course every critical environmentalist is aware of the relative and invented nature of any ‘open nature’ in any case. This, in turn, raises the question of priorities, and more particularly, the question of for whose benefit a country is planned.

Local planning laws are, as any planning is, a formalization of the recognition of the need for all societies to control the interaction between its members and to create out of the chaos of social relations a particular structure of life as an emergent property, one with a definite political form and purpose. As soon as humans have historically entered into relations with others in a fixed place for an indefinite period of time, such planning is the prerequisite of all human control over our own lives. But at the same time, they are also always a restriction of individual freedom. In this sense, all planning is the victory of the abstract freedom of the social individual, the species-being, over the physical freedom of the individual creature. This can be justified if and only if its actual reality is to enhance, rather than diminish, the mutual recognition of humans in which their full development as individuals depends on the full development of each of the other individuals, the only authentic form of society. This is as true for environmental planning as for any other.

For reasons scientific and aesthetic, taking the human interaction with nature – our metabolism as Marx called it – into account is of prime importance in making political decisions. The days of pretending pollution would not kill the poor, that uneducated people do not care about having green spaces, or that adverse ecological impacts can be limited to any small region are clearly over. Whether we like it or not, we must face the consequences of the global system capitalism has created, and the interrelationship of all the natural elements with each other and with our own production – the crisis of nonrenewable resources being the clearest example of this. But general ecological principles can only be justified insofar as they serve human goals, insofar as they enable a better life in every respect: better production, greater aesthetic enjoyment, more freedom to roam, better health, and a better comprehension of the world we live in and its physical properties. But they cannot be a hindrance or a let, a hard limit to the needs of humans for their own sake. Getting the line right between these requires a very careful understanding of the intricate and contradictory nature of the web of our interactions with our environment, the way it shapes us and the way we shape it – perhaps truly a case where the use of the term ‘dialectics’ would be appropriate. In the case of Dale Farm, the preservation of the green belt on this particular site by means of public planning fails that test.