Once again, we find our community blighted by illegal encampments. On Monday 29th January a group of caravans pitched up at the car park on Hannakins Farm Community Centre in West Billericay. Billericay West councillors were immediately in touch with Basildon Council officers and the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU) and kicked off the whole tedious cavalcade of serving notices and starting eviction proceedings. It goes without saying that this is totally anti-social behaviour, preventing children from being able to play football and leading to activities and community meetings being cancelled.
Sadly, all this has become a fairly routine occurrence and everybody – both the local authorities and the Travellers – know the procedure and go through the motions. Sometimes the Travellers (and, with the best will in the world, it is usually Travellers) move on sooner and sometimes they drag it out until they have exhausted all their appeals and wait until the bitter end before finally moving on. But they do always move on. It is just usually a question of how much mess they leave behind and, distressingly, this can sometimes lead to a clean-up operation that runs into the hundreds or even thousands of pounds to local taxpayers.
In this case, the Travellers moved from Hannakins Farm on Tuesday only to move straight onto the car park on Radford Crescent, near Lake Meadows. Essex Police served them with what is called a ‘section 61 notice’, requiring them to leave within twenty-four hours but now reports are flooding in – as I type – of a large number of caravans that have re-invaded Hannakins Farm and it sounds much worse than before. Cllr Tony Hedley (Con, Billericay West) has been to Hannakins Farm and is in regular communication with the staff there and also with our MP, John Baron, and Cllr Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead) has been liaising with Council officers, the police and ECTU regarding this escalating situation.
There are no easy answers with this question and the Conservative Group on Basildon Council have been grappling with it for years – just look at Dale Farm! It is always a challenge to balance the needs of the settled community with those of the Gypsy and Traveller community, who are a recognised minority group with certain legally protected characteristics. I know that does not always please everyone but that is a reality and we should stress that that the vast majority within our Gypsy and Traveller communities are perfectly law-abiding, decent people, who simply have a nomadic lifestyle as part of their cultural heritage and identity and it is a tradition going back hundreds of years. Many Gypsies on perfectly lawful authorised pitches are just as dismayed as the rest of us by an unfortunate minority of mainly Irish Travellers, who do cause unspeakable problems for our settled communities.
Fundamentally, toleration must be underpinned by shared values – respect for one another, respect for property (both public and private), consideration for the community and our place in it, and an assumption that we are all ultimately equal before the law and equally subject to the law. That toleration breaks down when there is a perception that certain people don’t respect the law and don’t seem to be subject to the law in the same way the rest of us are. One of the things I hear a lot from constituents is, “If I were to drive my car onto a school playing field or onto a park, I would be arrested yet these people get away Scott free”. Well, that is not actually true. Because trespass is a civil, rather than a criminal matter, you could not be arrested. The local authority or the landowner would have to go through precisely the same procedure – serve a notice on you, give you time to comply and, if you didn’t, go to court and seek an order to evict, serve the eviction notice, give you time to comply with that, and then, only once you have exhausted all your appeals, actually move to evict you. The only difference between you and I and the people involved in the kinds of illegal encampments we are talking about is that we would simply comply. We would not need to be taken to court. As soon as a vaguely officious-looking person in a high-vis asked us to move, we would splutter profuse apologies, climb back into our vehicle and move on. But I am afraid that does not happen in these cases and the legal process through the civil courts is time-consuming, expensive, and maddeningly frustrating. The system flatly does not work and is monstrously and demonstrably unfair to the settled community. We came up against it again and again when we were in administration and it was completely unsatisfactory.
It was because of these frustrations that Conservative councillors have spent many years lobbying our local MPs, who in turn have been lobbying parliamentary authorities on our behalf. Finally, in October of last year, that lobbying bore fruit when Parliament held two separate debates, the first in the House of Commons on the 9th and a further debate specifically on unauthorised encampments in Westminster Hall on the 12th, in which our three local MPs – John Baron (Con, Basildon & Billericay), Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh & Wickford) and Stephen Metcalfe (Con, South Basildon & East Thurrock) participated (click on the links for the Hansard reports). Two very important things emerged from these debates. The first was the announcement by the then Department for Communities & Local Government that it would consult on the effectiveness of enforcement powers. The second was a proposal put forward by Mark Francois that, as part of this review, the United Kingdom should consider adopting the so-called ‘Irish option’, namely emulating the approach of the Irish Republic and make deliberate trespass a criminal offence. This is important for the reasons I have already mentioned. A criminal offence of deliberate trespass would enable those who refuse to move after being asked to do so by a uniformed police officer to be arrested and their vehicles seized – something that residents often suggest we should do in the face of illegal encampments but which there is not presently any legal power to do.
Building on the back of those debates in Westminster and the consultation announced by the Government, I moved a motion at the last meeting of Full Council in December, calling for Basildon Council to contribute positively to the consultation, to put down the cudgels, if only for a moment, and stop bickering amongst ourselves as local politicians and instead offer our residents some small crumb of comfort that there is in fact light at the end of the tunnel and their elected politicians have some kind of idea how to move forward. You can listen to my speech and to the debate here (the debate begins at 160:00 on the recording). It was a good debate and well worth listening to.
In my speech, in addition to the ‘Irish option’, I also pointed to several policy areas I think need looking at. I think the police powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) need to be looked at, especially in the context of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidance on their usage, which I think are too prescriptive. These are the so-called ‘section 61 powers’, which allow the police to give notice to quit within twenty-four hours but the criteria for using these powers is too stringent. I also think a close examination of planning enforcement is urgently required, as we have seen all too clearly recently with the illegal Traveller development at Hovefields in Wickford just how woefully inadequate the court system is in that regard. Certainly, after four years on the Planning Committee, I have become convinced that the Government need to curtail retrospective planning applications. It cannot be acceptable for people to illegally develop land by laying down concrete at weekends or bank holidays and then put in a planning application for retrospective permission, which effectively cuts off any planning enforcement proceedings whilst that application is pending. It is a flagrant abuse of the planning system.
On the night, the Chairman of the Policy & Resources Committee, our de facto Council leader, Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West), moved an amendment to my motion so that the ‘Irish option’ would instead by considered by his committee first before being included in any submission to the forthcoming consultation. I have to say, in seconding the amendment, his colleague Cllr Allan Davies (Lab, Fryerns) gave a speech (at 172:00) that, in my opinion, gives a flavour of where the sympathies of many within the Labour Party really lie and I am afraid it does not always seem to be with our residents in the settled community. Nonetheless, it was more important to me that we pass the motion and begin some constructive dialogue, so I accepted the amendment. The matter is due to be considered at Policy & Resources on 15th March.
I shall be attending that meeting and I shall be making the case, quite simply, that people who seek to trespass deliberately and set up illegal encampments, causing criminal damage such as we are currently seeing at Hannakins Farm, should face the full severity of the law and it should be the same law that applies to everyone else, regardless of their cultural background.
There cannot be one law for some and another law for everybody else and protecting the special characteristics of the Gypsy and Traveller community cannot be at the expense of the settled community and their right to enjoy the local facilities that they pay for.