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Unauthorised encampments

Information on how to deal with unauthorised encampments.

I have seen an unauthorised encampment on public land. What should I do?

If the encampment is on public open space in the Sedgemoor area, then please report it to the Council by telephoning 0300 303 7800.

Can the Council immediately remove unauthorised encampments from Council owned land?

 No, the Council must:

  • Show that the occupiers are on land without consent
  • Make enquiries regarding the general health, welfare and children's education
  • Ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 has been fully complied with
  • Follow a set procedure in terms of proving ownership of the land, details of the illegal encampment, service of notices and summonses that will enable them to successfully obtain the necessary authority from the courts to order the unauthorised occupiers to leave the site

The Government has issued a summary guide to the powers available for 'Dealing with illegal and unauthorised encampments' 

Unauthorised camping is not a criminal offence. Trespass is a civil offence, giving landowners and local authorities the right to repossess their property using the due process of law.

Can the Council or police block entry to or exit from an unauthorised encampment following its initial set up?

No. It is illegal to stop entry/exit following initial occupation. Trespass on land by itself is not a criminal offence. If an encampment has been set up without permission, the council and/or police must follow the legislation and guidelines and seek eviction through the Courts if necessary.

How long does it take for an unauthorised encampment to be moved on?

This will depend on the circumstances of each case. The council will need to take account of the issues outlined above.

We try to operate a balanced approach as suggested by case law and government guidelines. Whenever an unauthorised encampment occurs, a Council Officer visits and makes an assessment of the situation. If it is in a quiet location and causing little nuisance a decision may be made to leave the travellers in place for an agreed period, as there is no point in evicting from one site to a worse one. It is in everyone's interest to agree a leaving date with the travellers, as they get a period of stability and we save the not inconsiderable costs of eviction.

If and when we decide to take legal action there are still procedures to be followed. The Courts require public bodies like local councils (but not private landowners) to take account of considerations of common humanity, so we must carry out needs and welfare audits to discover if any allowances should be made before we proceed. We then put our case together and apply for a court date. Assuming that we are granted an Order, this is served on the occupiers and if they fail to leave we can enforce the Order. It is impossible to put a time to this process but you can see that it is not an instant remedy.

Can the court refuse to grant the Council an order to move on an unauthorised encampment?

Yes. If there is an unavoidable reason for the occupiers to stay on the site or if the court believes that the council has failed to make adequate enquiries regarding the general health and welfare of the occupiers. The council must try to find out this information before going to court.

If an unauthorised encampment occupies private land, what can the landowner do?

If unauthorised occupiers enter private land, it is usually the landowner's responsibility to take the necessary action to evict them. The Council is under no duty to move the occupants on from private land. The landowner can attempt to agree a leaving date with the occupants or take proceedings in the County Court under the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 to obtain a Court Order for their eviction.

If the landowner fails to take action to remove the unauthorised encampment, what will the Council do?

The Council will make an assessment and either invite a planning application or serve an enforcement notice.

It is a very rare occurrence that the landowner will tolerate an unauthorised camp and will take their own legal remedy to secure their land back.

What are the responsibilities of the Police in this type of situation?

The duty of the police is to preserve the peace and prevent crime. The police will visit the site and in certain circumstances may use powers under Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 if they consider the occupants are trespassing on the land. These powers will only be used in situations of serious criminality or public disorder not capable of being addressed by normal criminal legislation and in which the occupation of the land is a relevant factor. It is for the police alone to decide if Section 61 is to be utilised.

The police are bound by the Human Rights Act and may be constrained to avoid using Section 61 in circumstances where it would preclude welfare considerations from being applied by the civil courts.

Is it a criminal offence if unauthorised occupiers break in and damage property?

Breaking in and damaging property are separate offences to trespass. Trespass on land by itself is not a criminal offence. Prevention of trespass and the removal of trespassers are the responsibility of the landowner and not the police.

If the police were able to attribute any damage to one or more individuals they could be prosecuted through the courts but their punishment would not be eviction of the whole encampment. This is because British Law only punishes the wrongdoer, not their family, friends, or the whole community. Also, under Human Rights legislation, punishment must be proportionate. So while a person could be fined or imprisoned for criminal damage, it would not be reasonable to impound their home, prevent their legal employment or disrupt the education of their children.

Breaking in and damaging property are criminal offences which are investigated by the police.  They will be subject to sufficient evidence and witness statements. Witnesses would be required make a statement to the Courts confirming that they can identify the person(s) who caused the damage.

If you see any criminal activity being carried out by any member of the public, please report it to the police by phoning 101.

What happens if there is lots of noise from an encampment?

We will ask occupiers to be more considerate of local residents and this is usually effective. However, reports of noise nuisance will be investigated by the Council's Environmental Health Team and if appropriate, used as part of the application for a Court Order for eviction.

How do we deal with rubbish from a site?

We regularly visit unauthorised encampments on Council land. We provide practical advice to ensure that every effort is made to try to keep the site tidy.

The tidiness of a site may determine how quickly we proceed to Court to get an Order. The Council's Clean Surroundings Team always ensure that waste and litter is removed from Council land after the encampment has moved on.

Private landowners are responsible for the removal of waste from their land.

The unauthorised encampment has moved on to a public car park. Will the council be enforcing car parking charges?

Encampments in car parks are 'unauthorised', and the legal process for eviction is entirely separate from the normal enforcement of car parking terms and conditions.

Enforcement of car parking terms and conditions is difficult to apply in the case of transient caravan dwellers. In such circumstances, chasing an unenforceable fine adds unnecessary costs. The most effective remedy is to seek possession through the Courts.

Also, issuing and enforcing car parking charges could deem the encampment to be authorised. This could be counter productive to the process of managing and seeking a court order to evict an unauthorised encampment.

Why will the Council provide bins and portable toilets for some encampments?

The cost of clearing up a site can be quite considerable when large amounts of waste material are left behind. In some cases it may be prudent and more cost-effective to provide bins and toilets. This can also reduce any adverse impact on the surrounding environment.

Future Planning

Sedgemoor District Council are currently preparing an updated Local Plan covering the period to 2032, this includes policy guidance for new gypsy and traveller sites. It is the intention of the Council to prepare a Gypsy and Traveller site allocation document that will identify specific sites to meet the identified need commencing in 2018 with the intention of completion by late 2019.