MP urges action to stop repeat of travellers' illegal encampment
Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson has called on Sefton Council to beef up security on the borough's parks after travellers set up an illegal encampment for five days in Duke Street park in Formby. The MP also called on the Government to toughen up the law so that travellers could be moved on more quickly and vehicles confiscated when people refuse to move on. He wrote to Sefton Council to ask what measures were being taken to deter travellers from setting up on other public sites in the borough and to provide places where they can stay legally.
Mr Esterson MP also called on the police to do more to clamp down on criminal behaviour after adults and children were seen driving cars and vans on the park, causing damage to the football pitches. He tweeted: "Police and councils need stronger powers so they can take action straight away. As the law stands it takes far too long to evict. Government
needs to change the law so this can be prevented in future."
Mr Esterson wrote to Sefton Council chief executive Margaret Carney last week to ask what the council was doing to move the travellers on, ensure the site was left tidy and deter the group from setting up illegally elsewhere in the borough. The travellers had arrived at the park on the evening of Tuesday June 12, and left at lunchtime on Sunday June 17.
The MP said: "I have every sympathy with travellers who need to stay somewhere but Duke Street park was entirely inappropriate, the anti-social behaviour and criminal damage caused was completely unacceptable and having caravans and people staying there is a public nuisance anyway. It is simply wrong for travellers to use the site and there should be a change in the law so that the police and councils can deal with this sort of situation straight away. "This site and the previous site in Sefton that this group was on were left in a terrible mess. The park is a public facility for the Formby community, not a caravan site or a tip. Security at these sites has to improve so that vans and caravans are physically unable to get onto our parks again."
The MP also asked Ms Carney what the council was doing to provide facilities in Sefton for travellers to stay legally. Formby Labour councillor Nina Killen added: "The encampment caused a lot of distress for residents. My colleague Cllr Catie Page visited the site a number of times to engage with the travellers and urge them to move on and take their rubbish with them. "I would like to see the council improve security on the site so that it is physically impossible to drive cars, vans and caravans on to the park, and for alternative provision to be made available for travellers. I respect their right to live how they choose but not at the expense of residents or public parks."
Mr Esterson said he had requested information from the House of Commons library regarding the rights of travellers, local authorities and the police.
The Government recently launched a consultation asking whether police and local authority powers were strong enough. The consultation closed last week (Friday, June 15). The House of Commons Library says in a briefing note: "Travellers do not have the right to occupy land belonging to private landowners or public authorities." A Home Office document entitled "Dealing with illegal and unauthorised encampments: a summary of available powers" states: "Recent experience has shown us (the Government) the problems that can be caused for communities by the illegal occupation of land. "It is often thought that local authorities and other enforcement bodies have limited powers available to tackle illegal and unauthorised encampments and the nuisance that they can cause. In fact there are extensive powers.
"Councils and the police have been given strong powers to deal with unauthorised encampments.
"Whilst there is a clear leadership role for local authorities in tackling illegal and unauthorised encampments, they should work collaboratively with other agencies, such as the police or the Highways Agency, depending on where the most appropriate powers sit."
Laws relating to the removal of illegal encampments include:
Section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which gives local authorities in England and Wales power to give a direction to leave the land. It is an offence to fail to comply with such a direction. If the direction is not complied with, the local authority can apply to a magistrates' court for an order requiring the removal of vehicles and any occupants from the land (section 78). Section 172 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 gives the power lto issue an enforcement notice, requiring steps to be taken to remedy a breach of planning control.
Section 183 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 has the effect of quickly stopping any activity which contravenes planning control guidelines and where there are special reasons which justify doing this: for example to prevent further environmental damage. A stop notice may only be served with or after an enforcement notice relating
to the same activity. Penalty for non-compliance is a fine of up to £20,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited fine on indictment (section 187). Sections 61- 62 of Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives the police discretionary powers to direct trespassers to leave and remove any property or vehicles they have with them. The power applies where the senior police officer reasonably believes that two or more people are trespassing on land with the purpose of residing there, that the occupier has taken reasonable steps to ask them to leave, and any of the following: a) that any of the trespassers have caused damage to land or property; b) that any of the trespassers have used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier, a member of the occupier’s family or an employee or agent of the occupier; or c) that the trespassers have between them six or more vehicles on the land. Failure to comply with the direction by leaving the land as soon as reasonably practicable is an offence. Similarly it is an offence for a trespasser who has left the land in compliance with an order to re-enter it as a trespasser within three months of the direction being given.
Local authorities and the Environment Agency may also prosecute in the event of fly-tipping.
According to the information from the House of Commons Library, the total number of Traveller caravans in England in July 2017 was 22,792, an increase of 33% since July 2007. The majority (54%) of caravans were on private sites, 29% were on sites operated by local authorities and registered providers of social housing, and 16% were on unauthorised sites. Bill Esterson MP said, “The problem of enforcement seems to be in how long it can take to obtain a court order. I shall also be asking the police to consider whether there are any lessons for them about evicting trespassers more quickly given the advice I have received about the existing law.”