Paul Smith, Associate
We have recently seen more protests across the country against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is currently working its way through Parliament. The main focus of these demonstrations has been the proposed curbs on the right to protest. One element of the Bill has attracted less attention is Part 4 which can give the police the right to seize someone’s home.
Part 4 covers “Unauthorised encampments” and the “Offence relating to residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”. This is the making good of a promise in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2019:
“We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities.”
The bold is not mine but those in the manifesto document itself.
Travelling communities are definitely reviled by many. Where I live the local Facebook group went ballistic when half a dozen caravans pitched up on some open land. It was as if the Mongols Hordes had descended on the community and were ravishing the countryside and slaughtering the residents. The travellers moved on after a few days and the site was cleaner after they left than when they arrived.
I must declare an interest, the housing association I lead provides and manages social rented Gypsy and Traveller sites across the South West of England. The residents pay rent, council tax, energy bills and water rates. Whenever a new site is proposed you can almost guarantee massive public objection to the planning permission. Nimbyism on steroids. The political challenge around this means that the provision of facilities for travelling communities is woefully lacking. Research conducted by the organisation Friends, Families and Travellers in 2019 identified that only 8 out of 68 planning authorities in the South East of England had addressed the need and supply of Gypsy and Traveller pitches in their local plans, despite this being a duty upon councils. Previous surveys showed that this was reflected across the country.
Every six months the government coordinates a count of vehicles and of new provision in England. Between 2019 and 2021 the number of vehicles had grown by over 1,500 to 24,203 while the number of new social housing pitches had increased by two. Twelve percent of all travellers were on unauthorised locations due to the lack of places for them to stay. There is also an enormous lack of authorised stopping places for people as they travel around the country. It is therefore little wonder that people are forced to stop on public and private land when hardly any provision is made along the roadways of Britain.
The idea of seizing someone’s home for trespass, making them homeless and possibly destitute is an extreme measure. Not only that, but could create a huge cost for local authorities having to make provision through homelessness legislation in expensive temporary accommodation. Ultimately, this discriminates against an officially recognised minority and a legitimate way of life. The answer is not to criminalise this way of life but to accommodate it with the provision of more affordable pitches and stopping places and to make it easier for travellers to obtain planning permission for land they purchase themselves.
I find myself agreeing with the Liberal politician and historian Lord Acton, “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities”