Battle of Little Waltham one year on

By James HoreTHE farmland now stands empty, but a year ago today the scene was very different as a violent battle erupted when bailiffs evicted a group of travellers.

By James Hore

THE farmland now stands empty, but a year ago today the scene was very different as a violent battle erupted when bailiffs evicted a group of travellers.

The 15 traveller families had bought their individual plots of land in Little Waltham from a farmer. They hoped it would become a permanent base and started to enrol their children in the local schools.

But having occupied the land since 2001, trouble had loomed for the travellers after they were unable to get planning permission to stay on the land.

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After a period of legal manoeuvring Chelmsford Borough Council issued the families with an eviction notice, giving them 21 days to leave the Meadowlands site.

But as the 8am deadline passed on January 26 last year, a digger went to work on the mud mounds designed to keep the bailiffs out.

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The ploy did not work and soon a 35-stong team of bailiffs moved onto the rain-sodden farmland.

Travellers had prepared for the day and were not ready to give up their land without a fight, hurling rocks at the contractors as a series of skirmishes broke out near to the caravans.

Children screamed out, running around their homes in chaotic scenes as the police helicopter kept watch overhead.

Fires had been lit and gas was released from canisters as the farmland came to resemble a battleground.

But the bailiffs' progress was swift as they used bolt cutters to remove one man who chained himself to a metal gate and by mid-morning it was clear that the families' hopes of escaping eviction were fading fast.

By nightfall all but two of the caravans had been cleared from Cranham Road and the eviction was hailed a success, despite taxpayers having to pick up a bill in excess of £150,000 for the clear-up.

The council denied it had victimised the settlers, saying the eviction was purely a planning enforcement issue and offered them support once they were off the land.

Since the events of last January the travellers have split up and gone off in their own directions around the country, while Chelmsford Borough Council said it was still trying to recoup some of the money spent on the eviction.

A council spokeswoman said it was in the process of going through the courts and looking to charge £18,000 a family for their eviction as part of a process of trying to recover the money.

For travellers across the UK there is currently a severe shortage of council-run sites and the situation is no different in Essex.

There are about 180 plots across Essex, but these are all full and have long waiting lists.

An Essex County Council spokeswoman said: “We do have waiting lists, but they are so full that people can be waiting for up to two years.

“It is quite tricky to give advice as to what to do. Spaces are so few across the country and it is unlikely that more will come up. Other authorities are in the same position as us. It is an issue that is not going to go away.”

People lucky enough to get a council-run plot are charged ground rent of about £40 a week per van and other fees including council tax, electricity and water rates.

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