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Harlow’s Gypsy-Traveller crisis: Council boss urges government to change law

Politics / Thu 2nd Oct 2014 pm31 12:55pm

THE CHIEF Executive of Harlow Council, Malcolm Morley has written a detailed letter to the communities secretary, Eric Pickles over the continuing problem of illegal encampments in Harlow.

Mr Morley’s letter is as follows:

“I write on behalf of the Council as a result of on-going issues associated with illegal
encampments. Since 8 October 2013 Harlow has seen an influx of travellers resulting in
35 illegal encampments to date. The travellers have grown in numbers from nine initially to circa 58 at its peak.

Attempts to move them from their illegal encampments have consistently led to them merely moving from one piece of land in the town to another. This frustrates the legal processes, by which the Council and landowners have to abide, and
causes considerable issues for local communities.

I am aware of the Guidance issued in August 2013 regarding the legislation available to
Councils regarding enforcing the law against illegal encampments. Regrettably
experience indicates that the legislation needs to be urgently revised. The legal process
needs to take into account the cost of each eviction and the affects that these illegal
encampments have on both the settled community and the settled ‘traveller’ community.

In dealing with these illegal encampments Harlow Council has incurred significant costs
and to date has paid over £8,000 to clear the sites of the rubbish and other materials
deposited on them, £2,450 in court application fees and £28,000 in preventative measures
from local Council Tax payers’ money. In addition the Council has had to divert staff from
providing other services to the settled community to dealing with this issue which inevitably
means that there is an opportunity cost for local communities.

Recently the London Borough of Croydon has spent over £128,000, St. Edmundsbury Council has had to apply for a High Court injunction, Hardhorn in Lincolnshire has had to take injunctive action resulting in a bill for £200,000 and of course addressing the traveller issues at Dale Farm in Basildon resulted in a bill of approximately £4.3 million.

In these times of austerity Councils cannot afford to keep clearing up after, and issuing
proceedings against, groups of travellers as they move from one illegal encampment to
another within their areas often before the hearing date for those proceedings. The
Council believes that there should be a review of the appropriate balance to be struck
between the rights of the travellers and the rights and costs to the settled communities
within Council areas associated with illegal encampments.

The experience in Harlow is such that regrettably criminality is often associated with illegal
encampments. Examples include causing damage in gaining access to sites (part of a
hedge was cut down to enable the travellers to circumvent the ditches that had been dug
to prevent access) and the dumping of waste on land from commercial activities
undertaken. Antisocial behaviour is reported by local communities with local people
feeling intimidated and in some cases subject to abuse. The use of land as an alfresco
toilet is also frequently reported and concerns expressed about noise and the lack of
control of dogs that generally accompany travellers.

Whilst there is close working with the Police, the Police need evidence to enable them to act. This evidence is often difficult to gain due to them not being able to be present at such encampments for any period of time and the lack of willingness on the part of local people to provide statements that can be used in court.

The Council believes that a change in the law is required to enable a District or Unitary Council to remove travellers from their areas without further recourse to the courts where a court order is made against them or the Police serve a Section 61 notice or where an illegal encampment occurs on land that has been subject to a court order or a Section 61 notice for an illegal encampment in the preceding period of twelve months.

This would stop the expensive and disruptive ‘cat and mouse’ game where travellers merely move from one site to another within the Council’s area.

It is also clear that Section 77 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is insufficient in that it is served on vehicles that can be (and are) changed frequently by the travellers rendering this ineffective in most cases. This needs to be reviewed to make it more effective.

It is possible for different interpretations for the use by the Police of the powers under Section 61 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to be experienced as it is for the guidance provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). The Council believes that there is merit in reviewing the criteria for the exercise of Section 61 powers and for their use to be mandatory where those criteria are met.

The Council recognises the human rights of travellers. It also recognises that a balance needs to be struck between those rights and the rights of the settled community affected by the actions of travellers.

It is concerned that in many cases the travellers have existing permanent places on authorised sites in different areas of the country or own houses and choose to create illegal encampments often to the detriment of the local settled community. The Council believes that there is merit in revisiting the definition of the term
‘traveller’.

The Council would request that:

1. A review of the definition of the term ‘traveller’ for the purposes of legislation is
carried out.

2. The powers of District and Unitary Councils to take action to remove illegal
encampments from their areas once a court order or Section 61 Notice has been
served in respect of an illegal encampment is reviewed.

3. The powers of District and Unitary Councils to take action to remove illegal
encampments from their areas without further recourse to the courts where a court
order or Section 61 Notice has been served relevant to that land in the previous
twelve months.

4. The criteria for the use of Section 61 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 be
reviewed along with its use being mandatory where the criteria are met.

5. The effectiveness of the use of Section 77 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act
1994 is reviewed.

6. The balance to be struck between the rights of travellers and the rights of the
settled communities in which illegal encampments are situated is reviewed.

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