Traveller encampments and the law
I am very conscious of the frustration felt by many people and their sense that the law is being flouted with regard to traveller encampments. This is not the case.
When a new traveller encampment is created, many different powers exist, exercisable by different parties at various stages of the process. Full details of the complex legal situation can be seen in the statement below from the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit.
It has been suggested by a Basildon councillor that, as Police and Crime Commissioner, I should act to “evict the travellers” from a privately owned site in Nethermayne. I do not have any power to do so.
I do have the power to oversee and scrutinise the Chief Constable of Essex Police. I am clear that, with regard to recent traveller encampments in both the Harlow and Basildon areas, Essex Police has acted according to the evidence and within the legal framework. My expectation is that Essex Police will continue to do just that.
In Harlow, Chief Supt Sean O’Callaghan advises that Essex Police continues to conduct site visits when travellers move to a new site. These visits are held in conjunction with the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit. They are initial site assessments and include an evaluation as to whether the serving of a Section 61 notice would be possible on the available evidence. Thereafter the sites are visited by police in response to any crime or Anti-Social Behaviour matters, as would be the case when any such incidents are reported by any members of the public. Since becoming PCC I have continually asked the public to report all incidents of Anti-Social Behaviour or criminal activity to Essex Police. Without this knowledge, the police cannot do their job.
I have also heard it said that Essex Police is reluctant to act against criminals when that crime is believed to originate from traveller sites. I am confident that is not the case.
I note the latest update from Harlow Council, who continue to take appropriate action within and according to the law.
As Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, I will continue to encourage co-ordinated working between all the parties – particularly Essex Police, the local council, Essex County Council, landowners and travellers to deliver both short and medium term solutions to these difficult issues.
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex
What is an unauthorised encampment?
An unauthorised encampment is when Travellers or Gypsies set up on land that they do not own, do not have permission to be there and they are planning to stay there for a period of time. This is effectively civil trespass.
Who deals with an unauthorised encampment on private land?
It is the land owners responsibility to take necessary action to reclaim their land.
Who deals with an unauthorised encampment on council land?
The relevant local authority’s enforcement officer. For those authorities signed up to it, this is the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU).
What powers exist to deal with unauthorised encampments?
In 2006, the Department for Communities and Local Government issued the Guide to Effective Use of Enforcement powers, which covers in some detail what it available to private and local authorities in reclaiming their land.
There is a base requirement that “a trespasser who enters land peaceably is entitled to a request to leave the land before being forcibly removed”.
Private land owners:
Are able to use common law powers, and utilise private bailiffs in using “reasonable force” to repossess their land.
Section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 – is the statutory power that gives local authorities the power to direct individuals to remove their vehicles and belongings and to leave highway land, or any land occupied without the consent of the landowner, whether owned by the local authority itself or in any other public ownership. This process is completed through the Magistrates’ Court. As a breach becomes a criminal act, there are further penalties for failure to comply, or returning to the same site within a three month period, which includes fines of up to £1,000.
Part 55 Civil Procedures Rules is the civil option which allows any landowner to regain possession of his/her land.
The approach used depends on the group of gypsies or travellers on the land. If it a group of constantly changing individuals, Part 55 is more appropriate as it can be served on a group of unknown/unnamed people.
Both processes take a similar time period. The time it takes depends heavily on how long it takes to get a time slot in the Magistrates’ Court.
The police have two emergency powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Section 61 – providing the land owners had requested the encampment to move, and they meet specified criteria; the Police can request them to move at short notice without reference to the courts.
Section 62a – as per 61, but on the basis that they are able to request the encampment to move onto available plots/site within the district or county. This would normally be a Transit site or Temporary Stopping place. However, there are none currently in existence in Essex.
Police emergency powers cannot be applied on Highways, hence cannot be used on highway verges etc. This is a defined exclusion within the act. Highways land falls within the jurisdiction of councils.
There is reference to injunctions in the guidance with the definition:
“An order made by a Civil Court (County or High Court) which usually prohibits somebody from doing something, based on the fact they have done it before, usually seriously and/or often. If an injunction is breached, the person can be fined or imprisoned for contempt of the court by not according with the terms of the injunction.”
This is a straightforward option when applied to a single site, however, there are complexities in applying this to a wider area and multiple sites such has been the experience recently in Harlow, in terms of formally identifying the land affected, on what basis the injunction is being applied for, whether it is enforceable and if successful, staking out all of the affected land/publicising the injunction. We do not want to create large exclusion zones for Gypsy/Travellers, as it is not illegal to travel, and you would effectively be excluding a single ethnic group from a whole district, whereas we need to target those abusing the system.
There have been other powers suggested in recent meetings such as Section 69 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This refers to “aggravated trespass” where trespassers have deliberately trespassed with a view to prevent the lawful use of/lawful activity taking place. This would have applied to the likes of the anti-fox hunting protesters of the past trespassing to sabotage hunts. The Gypsy/Travellers are accessing the land to reside for a period of time, and not specifically to prevent any lawful use.
For the full guidance go to: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/7837/143582.pdf
Who is signed up to the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit and what does it do?
Councils signed up to Essex Countywide Traveller Unit are Essex County, Basildon District, Colchester Borough, Maldon District, Rochford District, Tendring District, Thurrock and Uttlesford District councils.
Other authorities that work with the unit are Essex Police, Essex Fire and Rescue, Public Health/CCG and Essex County Council education.
The Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU) provides outreach services for all partners across Essex, covering health, education, fire safety, the management of permanent Essex County Council owned sites, and the management of unauthorised encampments on partner land. Harlow is not a member of the ECTU, hence carry out enforcement on their land, whilst ECTU manage encampments on Highways land in Harlow.
The Essex Countywide Traveller Unit ensures a consistent approach, eliminates duplication of resources and provides continuity. For example if a group moves across partner areas, they will be managed by the same officers; hence vehicle details and welfare checks would have already been completed and can just be updated. Also behaviour at previous locations will be taken into account in managing the current location. Equally the officers “get to know” the groups and vice versa.
What are unauthorised developments?
Unauthorised developments are where Gypsies or Travellers have bought the land or are there with permission, but do not have the necessary planning permission to reside on it. This could be due to location, such as greenbelt, or type of land for example, agricultural.
This is a planning enforcement issue, and falls to the planning department of the area they are residing. District/borough/city/unitary councils are responsible for planning at this level.
What is the difference between Travellers and Gypsies?
There are several separate ethnic groups within the Traveller and Gypsy communities; all sharing the same trait that they are transient and so live in caravans and travel. However there are some distinct cultural differences. To break down the key groups:
• Romany Gypsy or Gypsy – English Gypsies who’s ancestry is believed to have originated in India
• Traveller of an Irish Heritage, or Irish Travellers – Travellers from Ireland
• Smaller groups of Scottish and Welsh Travellers
It is important to note that these are recognised ethnic groups under the Racial Equality Act, and not lifestyle choices.
Travellers can usually be used as a generic term across all of these groups, however, this does not apply to Gypsy – an Irish Traveller is not a Gypsy – despite inferences in recent popular TV – but a Gypsy can be called a Traveller.
There are lifestyle groups which can get confused with the above due to the transitory nature:
• New travellers – who used to be known as new age travellers. Much closer to what might have been called the hippy movement in the past, but a lifestyle choice, and not an ethnic Traveller
• Travelling Showmen – circuses, fairs and so on, again a lifestyle/business choice, not an ethnic traveller.
How many Gypsies/Travellers are there in Essex?
There are no accurate figures for the total Gypsy/Travellers population in Essex, or in fact the UK. They appeared on the 2011 census as a separate ethnic group for the first time in 2011. UK wide, 55,000 people identified themselves as Gypsy/Traveller, 2,161 of which were in Essex. The population is now thought to be 2,630.
However, it is known that Travellers will often not identify themselves as Travellers for fear of persecution, and also many would have not completed the census at all. A respected and experienced research company in the field suggests that this is probably only a third of actual Gypsy/Traveller population.
Essex Planning Officers Association has just published the Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment report, which predicts that an extra 786 pitches for the Gypsy and Traveller community will be required by 2033, mainly in the south of the county. A further 183 pitches will be required for the travelling show people community. The location of the new pitches and how they are to be provided will be down to the individual local authority through the normal Local Plan process. From now until 2033 it is predicted that the Gypsy and Traveller population will grow by two per cent a year.
How many permanent Gypsy/Traveller sites are there in Essex?
There are about 170 permanent Gypsy/Traveller sites in Essex, including 12 local authority sites run by Essex County Council, equivalent to social housing. The remaining 158 are private sites, where the residents have purchased and/or developed their own properties. It is equally envisaged that a large proportion of the required pitches over the next 20 years will be private provision.
We don’t know how many sites there are without planning permission, where Gypsies/Travellers are on their own land but don’t have the necessary planning permission to reside there, this information will be available from the planning departments of the Essex authorities.
Do Gypsies/Travellers pay rent or council tax?
Gypsy/Traveller accommodation, as with the settled population can be private – in that they own the land/property that they living on, or rented/social accommodation, where they do not own the property, but pay rent to live there. This rent is either paid to a private landlord, or if social accommodation, to the relevant authority, in Essex’s case, Essex County Council. In addition in all forms of permanent accommodation Gypsy/Travellers pay council tax directly to the District / Borough in which they live, so for instance in the case of Harlow, all residents on the two socially rented sites will pay council tax to Harlow District Council as with the settled population.
For socially rented, Travellers pay a weekly rent of between £56.60 and £70 for which they access a plot with hard standing for their caravan, electric hook up, and a small dedicated amenity block with toilet/shower/bath and small utility area. In addition to the rent, which offsets site running and maintenance costs, they pay for electricity and water, and obviously council tax.