As the bailiffs prepare to move in to clear Europe’s biggest illegal traveller camp, Joe Willis talks to North-East gypsy spokesman Billy Welch about the case and what it reveals about Britain’s treatment of the travelling community.

BILLY WELCH repeatedly uses the words “it makes no sense” when talking about Dale Farm. The gypsy leader has friends in Essex who are keeping him updated by text on the latest developments.

Speaking from the legal caravan site which he and his brothers run in Honeypot Lane, Darlington, Mr Welch admits Basildon Council has a problem it needs to deal with.

But he adds: “How are they solving that problem by turning these people out onto the side of the road or a Tesco car park?”

When he talks about the site, he does so with a weary anger, rather than incredulity. Basildon Council’s treatment of the 400 traveller families living on the site is nothing new to him, with planning authorities across the country regularly taking similar stances, he claims.

Mr Welch believes the Essex authority’s tenyear legal battle with the travellers is deeply flawed, not least because Dale Farm was never the pristine “green belt” land which it is claimed.

“It’s a former scrapyard and nobody else wants it,” he says. “It’s contaminated and it would cost millions to dig it out and replace the top soil.”

He describes Dale Farm as a close-knit community where people love and care for each other. “Basildon Council should be preserving such communities and learning from them, not squandering millions tearing them apart,” he adds.

Three years ago, the chance of a stand-off at Dale Farm would have seemed remote, with the Labour Government allocating £97m to reduce the number of unauthorised camps and the cost of enforcement action.

But the Coalition Government scrapped the grant, replacing it with a much smaller amount, and the political will seems to have changed.

Mr Welch understands his community has to play its part to help reduce the national deficit, adding that travellers are happy to pay for their own sites.

However, he says the vast majority of planning applications by gypsies and travellers are rejected – in contrast to those submitted by the settled community – meaning finding suitable sites is extremely difficult.

“The traveller and gypsy community is expanding like others – what are people supposed to do? Do they want them to vanish into thin air? The residents of Dale Farm have only tried to provide what Government and local authorities have failed to do.”

There are other things which irk Mr Welch about the Dale Farm case.

The media’s insistence on calling the site’s residents “gypsies” is one. “They’re not gypsies, they’re Irish travellers,” he says, adding: “Most of the people on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding were actually Irish travellers, not gypsies at all.

“I said to Channel 4, ‘why did you call it that?’ and they said it was because it made a better headline. We get along with Irish travellers because often we have only had each other to lean on, but we’re not the same.”

Mr Welch is knowledgeable about gypsy history and keen to educate others.

HE tells how Romany gypsies settled in England about 500 years ago, after leaving northern India in about 1000AD.

When they first arrived in this country they were thought to have come from Egypt and so were called Egyptians. This was later shortened to gypsy. Mr Welch said his family arrived in Darlington – which he describes as the capital of the country’s gypsy community – about 170 years ago.

Gypsies now own numerous businesses and property in the town, but because of prejudice often keep their roots a secret, he claims.

According to the gypsy leader, members of his family served in the Second World War and a soldier recently killed in Afghanistan was a gypsy, although his family are unwilling to reveal the fact.

“We do our bit and we’re entitled to live here,” he says. “We’re British and as proud of British culture as anyone else.”

Mr Welch accepts that it is ignorance on both sides which has led to the suspicion and mistrust that gypsies and travellers now find themselves subjected to.

Wary of authority after centuries of persecution, he believes many members of the travelling community shy away from the media, meaning their stories are often ignored.

The public is left to fill in the gaps in their knowledge using a media that is often just as ignorant and, in some cases, openly hostile.

The gypsy leader believes that, as is often the case, the answer is education, which is why he is so keen on the public visiting Appleby horse fair, which he organises, and see for themselves, rather than base their views on tabloid stories.

He says he likes to get gorgers – the gypsy word for members of the settled community – to go and sit around the camp fires and listen to what travellers have to say.

“We’re good, proud people,” he says, adding: “Yes there are bad people in our community but there are in the settled community too – it wasn’t us that rioted or hacked into Milly Dowler’s mobile phone messages.”

It is a point convincingly made and the interview ends so Mr Welch and his wife can prepare for a night at the theatre watching Ken Dodd. Whether you prefer to live in a house or caravan, laughter is universal after all.