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New powers are needed to tackle unauthorised encampments

In her latest blog, Alison talks about unauthorised encampments and a illegal Dartmoor camp at Bellever

New powers are needed to tackle unauthorised encampments

Photo: Geograph/Sandy B

Among the many challenges faced by communities in Devon and Cornwall during the summer months is the issue of unauthorised encampments.

Although the police are often the first port of call when a group of travellers arrive in a community, unless property has been deliberately damaged or another criminal offence has been committed they may not become involved because at the moment trespass is a civil, not a criminal, offence.

In many cases it is the local authority, which might well have experts in gypsy and traveller issues, which can help calm tensions between traveller groups and local communities. Council officers can offer advice about how to take legal proceedings to move groups when they are on private property or a stay on publicly-owned land is inappropriate or dangerous.

But these legal proceedings are costly and time consuming. Courts have to consider the welfare and human rights of those involved, impact assessments have to be drawn up and sometime bailiffs employed to move camps on.

The landowner, who might well be trying to run a business from their property, is sometimes then left with the job of cleaning up the site.

You may have heard that the Government is considering bringing in new laws to make trespass a criminal offence in England and Wales – learning lessons from the Republic of Ireland, and has consulted police and crime commissioners and police forces on these proposals.

Such a move would ease the frustrations of landowners and, if proper alternative sites can be found, could provide swift solutions before encampments become established.

The Government is considering broadening the categories of criminal trespass to cover anyone who enters any land without the permission of the occupier with the intention to reside.

Police would also be able to direct offenders out of the local authority area, rather than simply moving them on.

In addition, police would be allowed to remove trespassers from camping on or beside a road.

And the time after which offenders can return to a site from which they have been removed would be increased from three months to one year.

The Home Secretary says she recognises that unauthorised encampments can cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering and that the public want their communities protected and for the police to crack down on trespassers.

The Government is currently considering the feedback it received during the consultation, including a lengthy response from my office. My view is that finding alternative, authorised and regulated traveller sites is key to making any new law work and providing a solution to a problem that has plagued some areas for decades.

There are certain times when criminalising illegal encampments would be very useful. For example, when travellers are preventing the landowner from using their property as it is intended or when, as in the case with the illegal Dartmoor camp at Bellever this summer, the mere presence of a camp causes damage because the site is one of scientific or historic interest.

One of the major challenges we face here in Devon and Cornwall is that there are not enough authorised sites. If we are going to use police to move travellers on we risk simple shifting the problem elsewhere unless more can be found.

Understandably councils have met with resistance when in the past they have tried to establish these sites but ultimately more are required. There needs to be a commitment from each local authority that they provide either temporary, permanent or tolerated sites for the proposals to work.

And the Government has a role to play in funding councils to establish the sites - especially as councils revenues have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately though I am pleased that the Government is grasping an issue that for many years has caused such consternation in our part of the world.

 Alison Hernandez