Councils will be given stronger powers to stop illegal travellers’ sites being set up, Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced.
Some West Country communities have suffered years of misery after travellers set up illegal sites which cost councils many thousands of pounds to close down.
At North Curry, near Taunton, it took more than five years to evict all the families who set up a large site on farmland that some had bought. Taunton Deane Borough Council set aside between £125,000 and £150,000 to pay legal costs, although not quite all that money was spent. At Minety, in Wiltshire, more than 50 travellers from 16 families set up a site over three days of a bank holiday. Then Planning Secretary John Prescott eventually gave them temporary permission, but when that ran out a lengthy legal battle ensued.
Now Mr Pickles has pledged to “stop caravans in their tracks”.
He has announced that he will revoke regulations that limit the use of temporary stop notices in relation to caravans used as main residences. The change will give councils more freedom to take action, when necessary, ensuring fair play in planning, including over a bank holiday weekend – when unauthorised development is at its most common. The changes will be backed up by potentially unlimited fines against those who breach the rules.
Mr Pickles stressed that the measures would see the rules and protections applied fairly, and said the move was aimed at preventing cases such as Dale Farm, in Essex, where a long-running legal battle was fought before bailiffs moved in.
Mr Pickles said: “Cases like Dale Farm threatened to bring the legal system into disrepute. I’m determined that we do all we can to avoid situations like that in future.
“In breach of planning law, travellers move in over a bank holiday weekend and it can take years for councils to remove them. Such episodes give the whole travelling community a bad name. By making these changes, we will stand squarely behind those who play by the rules.”
The new powers for councils in England will come into force once the current legislation is revoked, which will be “at the earliest opportunity”.
Yesterday, Councillor John Williams, leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council, said: “I welcome anything that gives further control to protect our communities, but I am cautious. The last government shouted from the rooftops that they were giving councils new powers, but when it comes down to it, it is a very difficult situation to handle because of other regulations such as human rights legislation. If we make someone homeless, they can come back and say, ‘We are homeless, house us’.”
Councils must approve prescribed numbers of pitches for travellers. Many councils are still searching to complete their allotted number. Taunton Deane has some, but must designate another 22 by 2018.