Will the Gypsy King Lose His Palace?



The Daily Telegraph
March 26, 2011

Battle commenced in court this week as villagers tried to remove some unwelcome invaders who arrived illegally over a bank holiday weekend...

By Clive Aslet

A metal plaque next to the cross on Meriden's village green proclaims it to be the ''CENTRE OF ENGLAND''. A few miles from Coventry, it once made bicycles (hence an obelisk commemorating cyclists killed during the First World War), then Triumph motorbikes. By the 1970s, these heavy machines, with their throaty roar and air of untamed masculinity, had lost ground to cheaper, more sophisticated imports from Japan. To keep the factory going, that patron saint of lost causes, Tony Benn, then industry secretary, funded a workers co-operative, which struggled along for eight years before going bust. But what is this? A Jensen Interceptor draws up; somebody still appreciates British automotive design in the golden age. Out of the silver classic springs Noah Burton, Meriden's gypsy king.

In jeans, striped shirt and dark jacket, Mr Burton could easily be mistaken for something else: more dashing than a solicitor - a racehorse trainer, perhaps. He's the sort of affable chap, full of tales, some probably best taken with pinches of salt, that it would be a delight to meet in the pub. Noah's father was born in a gypsy wagon, and he has known no life other than travelling. A public inquiry opened this week into his attempt to put down roots. He wants to stay in Meriden. Some of the village would rather he didn't.

In fact, the people of Meriden feel so strongly that they have established a protest centre-cum-observation post on Eaves Green Lane, opposite the field in which Mr Burton has pitched his tent (an expression that hardly does justice to the comfort of the Jayco motor home in which he lives.)

The figures on the noticeboard showed that the day I visited was the 326th since the vigil began. It is maintained around the clock, seven days a week. There is always at least one pair of eyes trained on Mr Burton's tall gates. It may seem jolly on a budding March morning, when the crazy-looking brazier - burning wood given by local farmers - is hardly needed to supplement the spring warmth. It was different during the winter snows. But this is the green belt, and Meriden's Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID) is out to defend it.

Mr Burton acknowledges that he pulled a fast one. He's not alone, however, in having done it. Indeed, his manoeuvre will be familiar to many communities around the shires, both local people and the authorities seeming all but powerless against it.

First, Mr Burton bought a six-acre plot from a farmer for £100,000 - well above the agricultural value. For a year, he was seen about the property, apparently - according to his neighbour David McGrath, now chairman of RAID - denying that he planned to do anything with it. Then, just before the planning office in Solihull closed for the May bank holiday last year, Mr Burton put in an application to build hard standing and utility blocks for 14 caravans. Barely had the planners got to their barbecues for the long weekend than the diggers arrived.

They were followed by a convoy of lorries delivering gravel. ''It was shock and awe,'' declares Mr McGrath, a training consultant who moved here for the peace and quiet.

''Fortunately, we knew many of the drivers and told them the development was unauthorised. We persuaded 90 lorries to turn back, carrying 20 tons each.'' Even so, by the time the planners, having returned to work, could issue an injunction, top soil had been removed, the site flattened and luxury caravans installed. Later, the council allowed the site to be connected to the main drainage and the National Grid, for reasons of welfare, but rejected Mr Burton's application for retrospective planning permission.

Seated in the Heart of England Social Club, inspector Phillip Ware, a chartered surveyor by training, is the embodiment of reasonableness. He's in for a wearisome 10 days, the time the inquiry is expected to last. He won't have the satisfaction of making a decision, merely a recommendation. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, is exercising his right to have the last say. There is a general expectation that the direction taken by the last government will be reversed.

Minety, in Wiltshire, is another of the several dozen villages in Britain to have experienced a blitzkrieg by caravan. There, the operation was mounted over the August bank holiday in 2003. Within days, what was in effect a new hamlet had been born, and the then North Wiltshire district council did not like the look of the baby. It refused retrospective planning permission, only for the then deputy prime minister John Prescott to revise the decision. In 2008, a government inspector ruled that what had been a temporary permission should be made indefinite.

To my surprise, when I visited Minety villagers were not antagonistic to their new neighbours. The principal concern was fairness. How is it that certain groups can drive a caravan and horses through planning rules when most people have to abide by them? (''I was refused planning permission to turn a bungalow into an office,'' fumes Mr McGrath. ''That only involved putting up a few shelves.'') At present, the system seems powerless to prevent rule breaking; last week Basildon council decided to evict the occupants of the country's largest illegal traveller settlement - it has grown from an illegal scrapyard to accommodate up to 500 people - but it will cost £8 million, a quarter of the annual budget.

The vigilance of RAID means that Mr Burton's camp has not become so established. Cheery though they may be, the protesters maintain that important principles, as well as property values, are at stake.

The inquiry opens with a sour exchange between ''learned friends'' about the extent of Mr Burton's application. From the original 17, the number of pitches being sought is now eight.

Although Mr Burton claims hardship, the counsel for RAID claim him to be a ''wealthy and successful businessman who has a number of business interests in classic cars, selling caravans, paving, tree lopping, scrap dealing and painting/ decorating,'' and whose business card suggests that he sells holiday properties in Greece.

During the coffee break, Mr Burton charms the local television cameras. ''What I'd like to say is, let's go in, have a cup of tea together, and live and let live.'' This may not be Midsomer but he detects what might be called a Midsomerishness in some of the attitudes. ''We all know what this is about. Nobody wants the dirty gypsy in their backyard.''

Dirty is the one thing that his camp, as far as I could see, is not. Four by fours are as neatly drawn up outside the caravans as they would be on a suburban drive. I spot a palm tree. The one crime seems to be a row of leylandii. Two women who emerge into the lane smilingly decline to comment. I cannot go onto the site because ''all the men are at the inquiry and it wouldn't be right''.

Meanwhile, with Easter, the royal wedding and a bank holiday coming up, rural planning officers would do well to ensure that someone is around to handle unexpected planning applications on Friday nights.

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