Dealing with the problems that can be caused by a large group of travellers encamped on a public highway can provide a challenging and expensive experience for any local authority.The range of interests that have to be taken into account and the possible need, at the end of the day, to evict travellers mean that coordinated action is needed by a number of different authorities and agencies. The potential for error is great and, with larger encampments, action can be expected to take place in the full glare of publicity.
For these reasons a number of authorities have developed (and adopted as policy) detailed procedures for taking action in cases where unauthorised encampments are involved. These procedures are best developed and tailored to the requirements of an individual authority by a specialised task group which might typically include:
- the chief solicitor or a representing solicitor;
- the travellers' liaison officer;
- the relevant head of service for the occupied property/highway;
- an enforcement officer.
The enforcement officer will usually be a local authority solicitor or other delegated officer with executive authority to act for the local authority on eviction day. He/she should be empowered to discuss and agree operational matters with the police prior to eviction and will accompany the senior police officer if necessary.
Cambridgeshire has the highest number of travellers in the UK and the county council has developed robust systems and protocols to deal with them. See its policy for managing unauthorised encampments on council land and a flow diagram demonstrating the processes that the authority follow.
Policies vary between authorities depending on local circumstances. The text on this pages gives an generic example of how an authority may approach the issue.
In practice most authorities are prepared to tolerate small encampments that do not interfere with users of a highway or with the public in general.
Where problems arise, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives the council a power to serve a direction on travellers if they are camped on:
- a) any land forming part of the highway;
- b) any other unoccupied land; or
- c) occupied land without the consent of the occupier.
The direction informs those persons camped on land that they must leave and prohibits their return to the land within three months. Persons refusing to leave land that is subject to a direction are committing an offence. The authority may also apply to the magistrates' court for an order for any person and property to be removed. A court order is valid for seven days, by which time eviction action must be completed or cease. Individual landowners have a power to evict campers from their land through the county court. This procedure is also available to a local authority in respect of land in its ownership.
In addition, district councils can use environmental health powers to require a landowner to take action if the landowner is not cooperating or is failing to take action.
Developing a procedure
Points to be taken into account when developing a procedure include:
- action to be taken where the land is privately owned or unoccupied;
- criteria for the toleration of small encampments;
- procedures for site visits;
- liaison with the police;
- liaison with social services;
- when to evict; and
- planning the eviction.
Private land/unoccupied land
The removal of travellers is the responsibility of the landowner. Local authorities may consider taking action if the owner cannot be traced and the travellers are causing a nuisance. If the landowner or agent is known, the local authority may inform them of the encampment and offer advice as to how to proceed. Where criminal or public order offences are being committed the police should be asked to investigate.
Toleration of encampments
Criteria for the toleration of an encampment for short periods include that:
- the travellers only park on land that is not needed for another purpose;
- the travellers are in small groups - up to three caravans is normally acceptable;
- the travellers' caravans are parked away from other groups;
- the land parked on is looked after and the travellers do not cause problems for nearby residents;
- rubbish is not dumped or burned; and
- vehicles are parked safely and all animals are kept under control.
Procedures for site visits
Site visits are an essential part of the investigation procedure and give the local authority officer the opportunity to advise the travellers of the authority's procedures and confirm these to them in writing.
Ask the travellers about their intended length of stay.
- Inform them that the authority will consider processing for eviction if they remain encamped for longer than the period identified in the 'tolerance criteria' (in accordance with the authority's policy).
- Hand the travellers a letter confirming the above.
- If possible, record the travellers' names and the identity of vehicles and caravans.
- If the travellers are not at home, post the letter (or affix it to a window - not to paintwork), and record the 'delivery' time and date.
- Another visit should be arranged approximately seven days after the initial visit if any of the following have occurred:
- further complaints have been received;
- obstruction, nuisance, damage;
- large numbers have gathered or remain;
- long-term occupancy.
Liaison with the police
In general the police will not use their powers under s.61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 unless there is a public order issue or general criminality. Where such powers are used:
- it will be necessary to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that all elements that permit the use of s.61 are met;
- it will be necessary for the landowner to show that he/she has taken sufficient action (usually by taking legal action) before the police are empowered to act; and
- it will be at the discretion of the senior officer present (in practice, usually an inspector).
The police will assist in the enforcement of eviction under other legislation where necessary and will also accompany local authority officers or their agents to ensure there is no breach of the peace. Prior to any eviction procedure the police will manage and keep order in the encampment in the same way that they would other situations.
Liaison with social services
Where children or other special needs groups are involved, it will be necessary to seek support from the local social services team before any action is taken to evict.
When to evict
Before a decision is made to evict an unauthorised encampment the following factors should be taken into consideration:
- the medical, education and welfare needs of the group;
- the extent to which the travellers have complied with the criteria for toleration;
- whether or not planning permission has been sought in respect of the land occupied;
- the availability of local authority pitches within the area;
- when the group was last moved on;
- the known behaviour of the particular group;
- the extent to which the land in question had been occupied over the preceding 12 months;
- the physical suitability of the site, i.e. the sensitivity of its location and the impact of the encampment on the environment;
- the mobility of vehicles; and
- any other relevant issues.
Planning the eviction
The following issues need to be considered when planning the eviction day and follow-up activities:
- the weather forecast and the condition of the site the afternoon before the eviction day;
- emergency contacts the evening before for those attending on the eviction day;
- commissioning and briefing a bailiff (the bailiff is instructed by the local authority enforcement officer and directs the resources provided by the authority);
- attendance on the day of the appropriate local authority officers;
- cost estimates;
- equipment and materials to assist the travellers' vehicles from the site (e.g. fuel, water, towing chains, jump leads, compressor);
- equipment and materials to improve the surface (e.g. JCB, lorry, sub-base);
- assembly venue at the start of the day;
- insurance for accidental and wilful damage in moving travellers' property;
- staff food and refreshments;
- a site remote from the encampment to be made available for individual travellers to repair their vehicles after eviction;
- press arrangements; and
- materials for site clearance after eviction (to deal with, for example, abandoned vehicles, tipping).