07:35 Thursday 20th October 2011
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
PAUL STAINTON: Well the big story this morning in most newspapers, the big story yesterday, live TV crews there at Dale Farm, as bailiffs were preparing to enter the UK’s biggest illegal travellers’ site. Yesterday 23 people were arrested during violent clashes between police in riot gear and the residents’ supporters. Amongst all that was Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for the East of England, who was removed from the site yesterday. Good morning.
RICHARD HOWITT: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: What were you doing, getting in the way Richard?
RICHARD HOWITT: Well can I be clear, I wasn’t on the Dale Farm site. There’s an adjacent media area, completely away from the operation, fully secured. It’s under the control of Basildon Council.
PAUL STAINTON: Why were you removed then?
RICHARD HOWITT: I was there to take part in the BBC Regional Look East, that we all know, and they decided that they would order their security officials to stand on either side of me, lift me up, and drag me off, when actually I was beginning the interview. And for a Member of Parliament, or Member of the European Parliamnet, to be prevented from speaking out in an interview .. yes I’m critical of the Council .. but for them to use Council officers and Council resources to prevent me undertaking that interview, I have to say is reprehensible.
PAUL STAINTON: Why are you critical of the Council? Because they’ve been through all the relevant processes, through the courts. This is an illegal travellers’ site. It’s been there for over ten years. And it’s a blight on the lives of the local people.
RICHARD HOWITT: Well first of all it’s a former scrapyard. I’ve been involved with this over several months, and I didn’t jump in. But I came to the view that they were prepared to move, and there are other sites available locally. I actually sought to mediate on a different site, which a Government Quango called the Homes and Communities Agency was not simply prepared to allocate the land, but even to pay for the travellers’ site to be set up.
PAUL STAINTON: They’re not prepared to move though are they? Because they’ve been offered alternative accomodation on a number of occasions, and they’ve not moved.
RICHARD HOWITT: Well I beg to differ on that. As I say I’m someone who tried to mediate and get both sides together to avoid the scenes that you saw yesterday, and there have been numerous planning applications over the years for alternative sites. They have assured me in deep discussions over a long time that they were prepared to move.
PAUL STAINTON: Well why haven’t they moved?
RICHARD HOWITT: I don’t defend by the way violent scenes. I fully support the police. I’ve called for calm. I’ve condemned violence. I don’t think that is at all acceptable, but I have tried to work as a representative covering Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, including this site, to try and see, together with the Bishop of the local diocese, and together with the UN Human Rights Office, whether we could avoid what happened yesterday, and I’m deeply saddened that that offer to Basildon Council was not accepted.
PAUL STAINTON: But we could have avoided it couldn’t we, because the travellers could have moved on any time in the last ten years.
RICHARD HOWITT: Well fifty of their children were born in the local hospital. They attend local schools, where the teachers by the way are very supportive of them. They worship in local churches, where the church leaders are very supportive of them. Half of the site has planning permission. All of it is owned by them. It’s a former scrapyard. I do not in any way excuse a breach of the planning law. Something had to change. I fully accept that.
PAUL STAINTON: Otherwise any of us could just go and concrete over a bit of green land in Peterborough, couldn’t we?
RICHARD HOWITT: Well it’s a former scrapyard. It was already concreted over. And Basildon Council ironically used to apparently use it for dumping rubbish. But I’m concerned, talking to people in Peterborough and across the county, that Basildon Council, by simply wanting the confrontation, as far as I can see they actually politically think that it’s to their credit, the scenes we witnessed yesterday.
PAUL STAINTON: Seriously you really think that?
RICHARD HOWITT: Well why did they avoid all these offers of mediation? Why did they refuse all these other planning applications when they’re selling off seven green spaces in their town for private housebuilding.?
PAUL STAINTON: Perhaps because they claim they’re upholding an importnat principle, on behalf of the law abiding tax payers of the county. The travellers have flouted planning laws by building on what is technically green belt land. That’s why.
RICHARD HOWITT: Well why seven other spaces for bricks and mortar housing? Because they’ve got themselves in a financial muddle over a new sports complex. But not one for travellers. That, to me, looks like discrimination. And there are other laws. There are laws of respect for different races and ethnicities. I know it’s not popular, and many people listening will not agree with what I’m saying, but travellers do have the right to live and have their lifestyle respected, if they themselves obey the law.
PAUL STAINTON: Do they have a right to concrete over green belt land, anywhere they like?
RICHARD HOWITT: No-one has a right to breach planning laws. But no-one has a right to breach laws of respect against discrimination. My point is all laws should be respected.
PAUL STAINTON: Just quickly Richard, should they be evicted today or not?
RICHARD HOWITT: Well at this stage I just hope that no-one is harmed. I call for calm and restraint. I hope everyone stays safe. And I will support the police. I won’t support a council that I think is using this for political purposes. But any responsible politician should hope that what happens now involves no harm to anyone. And that is my hope, because I am that responsible politician.
PAUL STAINTON: I think we all echo those sentiments Richard. Thank you for coming on this morning. Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for the East of England. Dragged off the site yesterday, as he prepared to do a TV interview.