TRAVELLERS fighting to stay at Europe's biggest illegal camp are linked to a network of French construction companies.

The Echo can reveal 23 road surfacing and building firms were set up by businessmen registered to traveller sites and addresses across Britain and Ireland. Seven are at Dale Farm, near Billericay.

The firms, set up last year, stretch from Calais, Boulogne and Lille, in the north, to Paris, Grenoble, Besancon, Cahors, Pau and Bordeaux, in the south, and even Sarreguemines, on the border with Germany.

Our investigation has discovered the companies are run by the Irish travellers, known as the Sheridan clan, who developed Dale Farm, in Crays Hill.

Yet statements by travellers during public inquiries claim the majority of the 50 illegal plots house single mothers and pensioners, who survive on state handouts.

They argue their need for a permanent home should outweigh the harm to the green belt.

However, our latest revelation has renewed calls for inquiries into the financing of the huge Dale Farm site.

Council leader Malcolm Buckley said: "The evidence clearly suggests many of the people should not qualify for benefits if they are running businesses and living and working abroad for a significant part of the year.

"I would hope the Benefits Agency will be investigating."

At the latest public inquiry last month, David McPherson-Davis, Ramsden Crays Parish Council chairman, produced evidence two of the families had French businesses linked to their addresses, as revealed in the Echo.

They were run by men not listed as living on site, in appeal paperwork given to Basildon Council and the Planning Inspectorate.

How was site financed?

OUR revelations have fuelled mounting suspicion Dale Farm was developed by wealthy businessmen.

Crays Hill residents believe unknown developers financed the site.

Villagers believe they use the traveller status of elderly and less able relatives to win planning permission, increasing the value of the green belt land.

Ramsden Crays Parish councillor John Dornan has now called for an investigation into the financing of the site.

He said: "The travellers say up to £2.5million was invested in the site, yet on paper it is occupied mostly by women on benefits. Here is evidence of links to businesses. The Government needs to investigate."

Billericay MP John Baron said: "I shall be pressing the Government to explore whether evidence given at local inquiries stands up to scrutiny given the new information unearthed by the Echo.

"I will also be raising the possibility of benefits being dishonestly claimed."

Residents say aerial photographs of the site and the latest gipsy count figures, which show up to half the site was empty this summer, support this argument.

Most appellants argue they no longer travel through ill-health, lack of transport or financial problems, yet many of their homes were deserted.

Pictures taken in September show a number of plots with no caravans or mobile homes on, and others locked up on legal and unauthorised areas. David McPherson-Davis, Ramsden Crays Parish Council chairman, said: "Is Dale Farm really a transit base when they are in the district? These businesses indicate the travellers are not as poor as they make out."

Basildon Council leader Malcolm Buckley said involvement with foreign businesses casts doubt on their claims for needing the site on human rights grounds. He said: "If people are working abroad or living elsewhere it brings into question their need to live at Dale Farm."

Dale Farm spokesman Richard Sheridan, who has just returned from a trip lobbying a homelessness conference at the European Parliament, said he knew nothing about the businesses. He said: "This is about people's rights and children's lives and the council trying to ethnically cleanse travellers from Basildon."

Puxon facing questions

TRAVELLER activist Grattan Puxon has made no secret of Continental business links - and his admissions fly in the face of repeated traveller arguments for staying at the site.

In pleas to the Government and United Nations, he has mentioned men working overseas.

At planning appeals, the travellers claim just a handful of men of working age live at Dale Farm, and most occupants no longer travel due to poor health, poverty and lack of transport.

Yet in a submission to the UN, Mr Puxon admitted hundreds of men live at Dale Farm.

He said action was needed before "many hundreds of men", women and children were thrown on to the road.

He also admits to the site's considerable workforce.

In a plea to the Government, he wrote: "This summer many, if not most, of the able-bodied workforce are away in France, Germany and Spain, where some have registered and established private companies.

"They are following a new work pattern which involves the older folk and small children remaining at home, while the men pursue trades on the Continent."

His press releases also admit to large-scale business travelling, stating: "That's not to say they don't travel any more. Far from it. A new version of the travelling life is rapidly evolving, facilitated by the freedom of movement within the EU. Using Dale Farm as a base, they're now making extended trips to France, Germany and Spain."

However, David McPherson-Davis, Ramsden Crays Parish Council chairman, said: "These inconsistencies fly in the face of appeal evidence and need explaining.

"At inquiries we are told of hard-up women who can't travel.

"Mr Puxon's statements suggest otherwise."

Mr Puxon also admitted men not listed as living at Dale Farm are also using the site, although he would not comment on individual anomalies revealed by the businesses.

He said: "You have to bear in mind there are always some comings and goings with, in particular, younger men staying for a while and then going off on work trips.

"I have no detailed information on this score about individual plots.

"When talking about new work-patterns, with travellers going abroad, I have been referring generally to the Dale Farm and Oak Lane area as a whole."

He said his main concern remained fighting for the rights of the elderly, children and single mothers.

He added: "The static community of elderly people, some infirm, and children and single mothers in the yards without planning consent, are my concern.

"This is the main concern of the Save Dale Farm campaign."

Sheridan clan's business empire

THE Sheridan clan's French businesses reveal more evidence of an empire stretching from Ireland to Essex and the Midlands.

Eight of the company directors, some of whom also deal in antiques and furniture, claimed Dale Farm was their home.

Other businessmen used addresses in areas where links to Dale Farm had already been established by previous Echo investigations.

Here's what the Echo unearthed in French company registration documents:

* Four directors used private homes in Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland

* Six directors said they lived in housing association homes on the Low Hill estate, Wolverhampton

* Four men gave the Smithy Fen illegal camp at Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, as their address

* Three men gave addresses in Mansfield, Notts, previously used by people living at Dale Farm, which included a former antiques warehouse

* Five used mailbox addresses in London and Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

* Five said they lived in France, while others used addresses in Lancaster, Shropshire, and a council house in Coventry.

Many directors with an address in one of the areas teamed up with partners using addresses elsewhere.

J&D International Ground was set up by John Gammell, 42, from Lillington Road, Coventry, with Dan Flynn, 46, from Roches Road, Rathkeale.

Danny, 38, and James Sheridan, 39, from Crays Hill, set up NWD Constructions with William McCarthy, 39, from Smithy Fen.

David Sheridan, 45, used the former Fair Deal antiques warehouse in Chesterfield Road North, Mansfield, as an address to set up JAD Asphalt with John Sheridan, 40, and David Quilligan, 42, who both used a Cheltenham mailbox address.