Showdown: Plea to Irish travellers to leave Dale Farm
A council planning to evict Irish traveller families from the UK's largest illegal travellers site has issued a final plea for them to leave voluntarily.
A 28-day notice served on residents of Dale Farm, near Basildon, Essex, expired last night. The travellers failed in a High Court bid yesterday to stop the eviction.
It follows a decade-long row over unauthorised pitches on the former scrap yard, which is owned by the travellers.
An estimated 400 people on 80 different pitches say they face losing their homes. Among them are young children and older people with health problems.
A group of protestors has gathered on the site and there are fears that troublemakers may infiltrate the group, resulting in violence.
Basildon Council leader Tony Ball said: "I am making a final appeal to the residents to leave Dale Farm peacefully.
"I would also ask any visitors to the site or anyone who truly has the travellers' interests at heart to urge them to do this as well."
A spokesman for Basildon Council said: "As the terms of the notice have not been complied with, the council along with its contractors now plans to take direct action to clear the site.
"This will involve the removal of caravans and mobile homes ahead of digging up hard standings, roads and outbuildings."
Talking about the clearance, Mr Ball said: "Direct action to clear Dale Farm is a last resort for the council and we take it reluctantly - but after almost 10 years of legal wrangling, the travellers have left us with absolutely no choice.
"This settlement has been illegally developed on greenbelt land. By doing this and failing to comply with various enforcement notices over a period of years, the travellers have broken the law.
"By taking this action we are not discriminating against the people on Dale Farm - we are treating them the same as we would any other resident in the local area who built on or developed greenbelt land without permission.
"We now have a difficult operation which we will carry out in a safe and lawful fashion.
"We will continue to offer housing assistance to those who may become homeless as a result of the clearance and we will work closely with other agencies such as the NHS to provide necessary support for the more vulnerable members of the community during the operation."
He added that action will only take place after the travellers have been informed of the date of the operation.