Illegal traveller sites: 'Decisive action' demanded

Dale Farm eviction
Image caption Riot police were involved in the Dale Farm site eviction in Essex in 2011

Councils should be quicker to clamp down on unauthorised encampments and traveller sites, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has said.

Mr Pickles has issued new guidelines reminding local authorities in England of their legal powers to deal promptly with illegal traveller sites.

The Local Government Association said councils were prepared to take "swift and robust action" in such situations.

The Gypsy Council said more legal sites need to be created for travellers.

Mr Pickles said his move would give a stronger voice to local residents and councillors to challenge council officials.

Government 'grandstanding'

But Joseph Jones, chairman of the Gypsy Council, accused the government of "reinforcing negative stereotypes" about travellers.

"It's creating tension, it's a negative thing to do," he told Sky News.

"Local authorities already know how to manage unauthorised encampments, they don't need the government to tell them how to do it.

"This latest statement Mr Pickles has put out doesn't have anything new in it. It doesn't have any new powers or anything like that.

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Media captionEric Pickles: "This is something we should all welcome"

"It just seems to me like a bit of grandstanding."

The chief executive of the Irish Travellers Movement, Yvonne MacNamara, told Radio 5Live the focus on enforcement "will not solve the problem" of illegal sites.

Mr Pickles said the recently scrapped Equality and Diversity in Planning guidance discouraged councils from taking enforcement action.

The guidance for local councils and landowners covers unauthorised traveller sites, protest camps and squatters on both public and private land.

It also deals with the problem of the clear-up operation on such sites.

Mr Pickles said: "I want all councils to be ready to take action straightaway to stop illegal camps and unauthorised sites starting in the first place. Decisive action early on saves money and unnecessary upset for local residents.

"We've strengthened councils' powers so they have the confidence to take decisive action. Too often council officers wash their hands and say nothing can be done. This is not the case.

"The public want to see fair play with planning rules enforced consistently rather than special treatment being given to certain groups."

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Media captionJoseph Josephs from the Gypsy Council: "This latest statement really muddies the waters"

Councils needed the political will to uphold the law, Mr Pickles added.

Speaking ahead of the announcement, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "The same law should apply to everybody and just as you can't suddenly change your house without permission, you can't suddenly set up an encampment without permission."

Powers available to local authorities include temporary notices to remove unauthorised caravans, pre-emptive injunctions that protect vulnerable land in advance, and possession orders to remove trespassers from land.

'Breaks rules'

A Local Government Association spokesman said: "Councils across the country are providing authorised, legitimate sites and services for travelling communities.

"People who live nearby need to be given a say on whether land is appropriate for travellers and that is precisely what the planning process is there to do.

"Local authorities take swift and robust action against anyone who breaks the rules by setting up camp on land without permission."

One of the biggest evictions in recent years was in 2011 at Dale Farm in Essex after a hard-fought battle through the courts.

Police and bailiffs moved in following a 10-year dispute between travellers and Basildon Council in green belt land.

About 85 families lived on 51 illegal plots which did not have planning permission, covering half of the traveller site.

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