Hounslow Council is preparing a legal case to prohibit illegal encampments and the dumping of waste across the borough, in line with action successfully taken by Ealing and Hillingdon councils. Cllr Steve Curran, leader of Hounslow Council, says he expects the case to go to court ‘in the next few weeks’. The case has been in preparation for some time, as illegal encampments by Travellers is a growing and costly problem.
The latest example, in Chiswick, was when a group of Travellers made camp in the car park of Hounslow and Barnes Hockey Club in Dukes Meadows over the weekend, having moved on from Chiswick Back Common, where they stayed Thursday night.
The groundsman at Hounslow and Barnes Hockey Club, Ahmed, was tending the club’s pitches at Dukes Meadows when a passerby alerted him to the fact that a group of caravans, cars and motorbikes had just entered the club’s car park at around 11.00am on Friday. He went over to have a look and asked them how they’d got in, as he knew he had left the barrier locked. ‘The gate was open’ he was told, the police had been and it was ‘all fine’.
As there were so many of them and he was on his own, he had no option but to retreat and call the police, even though he knew he’d left the gates locked and he could see that an angle grinder had been used on the padlock. “They were trying to intimidate me by circling around on their bikes and revving their engines” he told me. Ahmed, who has been groundsman at the club for ten years, has had experience of dealing with Travellers before. Last summer, the same thing happened and when they left the site they left behind them mounds of rubbish which took several journeys by truck to shift.
The police responded on Friday, one officer came, who told him that if were was any incident he was to call 999.
When he came back the following day he found the club’s hut smashed, seven or eight kit bags full of stuff stolen, ladders and a new dustbin gone and the place trashed, with tea bags and kitchen supplies strewn around. The security camera he’d put in place, a dummy as it happened, had been smashed; also missing was his spare bike. He called 999, the police came again after an hour or so and apparently some kind of deal was struck by which the Travellers would be gone within 24 hours.
“Our enforcement officers and our police team work closely together” says Cllr Steve Curran, Leader of Hounslow Council. “Unfortunately they moved from site to site; we have no legal powers to stop that. We expect to be going to court in the next few weeks so we are in line with Hillingdon and Ealing”.
The Travellers were gone by midday on Sunday, so the police acted quickly and were very effective, as far as they were able within the law. They also recovered most of the stuff which had been taken, including a bike and a golf club stolen from the nearby Dukes Meadows Golf Club. “We have it on CCTV” one of the golf pros told me. “It took all of 30 seconds” for two teenage boys to come in to the club grounds and steal a bike and a club from a golf bag outside the shop.
“It’s a nuisance” said Ahmed, clearing up the mess on Monday and repairing the shed. “They had a big party on Saturday night. They broke in to the control box and set up their generator and had a bonfire going”.
This is the second time Chiswick has seen Travellers set up camp within a few weeks. The first was on the disused car park in Essex Place, next to Sainsburys, which is owned by Lendlease. Ealing Council has had problems with Traveller settlements on Ealing Common for years, coming to head recently with a surge in encampment numbers, with 40 alone arriving since November 2018. ‘This is a significant increase in what is normally the quietest time of the year for these types of encampments’ says Ealing Council. They have recently obtained a High Court injunction that prohibits illegal encampments and depositing of waste on more than 300 sites across the borough. The injunction forbids caravans, mobile homes, vans and lorries from coming onto public land and setting up camps and dumping waste on it. ‘It will mean that neither the council nor the police will have to rely on their respective powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which is not always quick and effective at removing incursions and encampments’ say Ealing Council.
Implementing a borough-wide injunction will stop ‘named persons’ and ‘persons unknown’ from camping or dumping waste on any parks, sports fields, leisure areas, agricultural land, woodland areas, opens spaces, housing estates, car parks and leisure facilities in the borough which are owned and managed by the council. The injunction will initially remain in force until a full hearing on 19 July 2019. Providing the injunction is working effectively in practice, the council can ask the court to extend it for a three-year period.
Hounslow Council is looking to follow suit. “We have been asking government for more powers to enforce against this type of antisocial behaviour, which costs the residents and businesses of Hounslow tens of thousands of pounds every year” says Steve Curran.
Ealing councillors also made representations to the Home Office about the problem last year and in February Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced plans to tackle illegal Traveller sites by giving police tough new powers.
“The vast majority of travellers are law-abiding citizens – but illegal sites often give an unfair, negative image of their community and cause distress and misery to those who live nearby” he said. “There is a widespread perception that the law does not apply to Travellers and that is deeply troubling. The result of our initial consultation was clear – people want to see greater protection for local communities and for the police to be given greater power to crack down on trespassers”.
Communities Secretary Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP said: “During our consultation, we have heard accounts of needless and unacceptable noise, abusive and threatening behaviour and extensive litter and waste from illegal Traveller sites. Only a small minority of people are causing this distress, but it’s right that police are given extra powers to step in. We are committed to working with councils to help them deal with these challenging cases, while also ensuring Travellers have good access to legal sites”.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has committed to give councils up to £1.5 million of extra funding to help them enforce planning rules and tackle unauthorised sites, with funding also available under the £9 billion Affordable Homes Programme to help pay for legal pitches.