Dale Farm, near Crays Hill, was the largest illegal traveller site in the UK – if not Europe. No-one is looking to discriminate against a minority, but it is only fair and right that anyone who lives in the community should abide by its laws.
Having consulted widely about the traveller issue in general, in 2003 I proposed a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament entitled the ‘Greenbelt Protection Bill’. This sought to introduce an obligation on councils to provide authorised sites where it could be clearly demonstrated that there was sufficient need; secondly, it would have given councils much stronger powers to deal with anyone who persisted in breaking the law – but only if councils could show they had first addressed local need by providing authorised sites. However, neither the Gypsy Council nor the-then Labour Government would support the Bill, so it fell.
Basildon Council has around 100 authorised sites and pitches, whereas some neighbouring local authorities have none at all. This responsibility needs to be shared more fairly. The local situation was not helped when Basildon Council was stopped from taking appropriate action in 2003 by the-then Deputy Prime Minister deciding to give those travellers at Dale Farm a two year period to move on to other sites – during which period the site quadrupled in size. Having pursued the issue through the planning regulations and then subsequently the courts, Basildon Council was told it had finally cleared all legal fences by the end of 2009.
However, because Dale Farm had by then become the largest illegal traveller site in Europe, nearly £10 million was needed for the extra policing costs for the site clearance, assuming a worst-case scenario. I initiated various meetings involving the Prime Minister (then David Cameron), Home Secretary, the Chief Constable and Council Leader whereupon the extra funding was agreed from a combination of sources. The site has now been cleared.
Nevertheless, tensions between our local community and a minority in the traveller community remain. After pressure from myself and other MPs, in 2018 the Government instigated a consultation into the effectiveness of powers to prevent unauthorised encampments and developments. I put in a joint submission in June 2018, along with neighbouring MPs, pointing out areas where we believed the law did not go far enough.
In the Government’s response to the consultation, there were welcome plans to strengthen Police powers – responding to the fact that only 9% of submissions stated that current powers were effective and only 4% submitting that new or revised powers were not needed. These changes largely reflect our joint submission.
In the first instance, the Government will put to Parliament amendments to current legislation to permit the police to direct trespassers to authorised sites in neighbouring local authority areas – currently they can only direct to sites in the same local authority area. This should make it easier for the Police to act where there is a shortage of local authorised sites.
The Government will likewise seek approval to increase the period of time in which trespassers directed from land would be unable to return to that site. Currently this stands at three months, and the intention is to raise it to twelve, which should give greater protection to sites repeatedly targeted by unauthorised campers.
There are also plans to reduce the number of vehicles needed to be involved in an unauthorised encampment before the Police can intervene to two or more, down from six or more at the moment. This should make it harder for unauthorised campers to avoid enforcement by splitting into smaller groups.
Other changes would also permit the Police to remove trespassers from land forming part of a highway – which they currently can not do unless there is a suitable pitch available in the local authority area. The Government will also conduct a review into the so-called ‘Irish Option’ of criminalising trespass in certain circumstances – this is good news, as our consultation submission specifically called for this initiative to be explored.
Local MPs and I also made a range of similar points in a further consultation which took place in February 2020, in which we signalled our support for the so-called ‘Irish Option’ of criminalising deliberate trespass. The outcome of this consultation was published in March 2021, and the relevant legislation from these consultations is contained within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.
All these are all positive steps in the right direction, and along with colleagues I will continue to press the Government to reduce unauthorised development and encampments, and to ensure that planning law applies to everyone equally.