Travelling People (Greenwich)

– in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 20th May 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

Photo of Mr John Cartwright Mr John Cartwright , Woolwich 2:31 pm, 20th May 1988

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise once again the intolerable nuisance being suffered by too many of my constituents as a result of the establishment of illegal caravan camps in their midst. This has been a long-running saga thoughout my 13½ years as the hon. Member for Woolwich. The first item in my thick file on the subject is dated 17 March 1975.

I make it clear at the outset that Greenwich council has not been unsympathetic to the needs of genuine gipsies and travellers. During my period as leader of the council in the early 1970s, we provided a site for about 54 caravans on what has since come to he called the Thistlebrook site in Abbey Wood. That site was planned in conjunction with the Gipsy Council and cost more than £300,000. Since then, more than another £100,000 has been spent on clearing the area, which had been contaminated by some of the residents' heavy metal breaking activities.

Although there were a number of travelling families living on the land before the official site was set up, Greenwich council has more than met its obligation under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. It is therefore a designated authority, which gives it the right to take legal action against travellers establishing themselves on the roadside or on publicly or privately owned land in the borough.

Such invasions of caravans occurred rarely in the early 1970s, and mainly in the Abbey Wood area. They were usually brought to an end by legal action after a few weeks. However, as the progressive development of Thamesmead opened up extensive areas of land that had until then been securely fenced off, large-scale caravan encampments became a more regular problem. Nevertheless, there was effective co-operation between Greenwich council, the GLC, which owned Thamesmead, and Thames Water, which also had substantial land holdings in the area.

The necessary legal action was begun as soon as the caravans arrived; it took time to complete and was reasonably effective, but sadly all that changed in about 1982. New political administrations in Greenwich town hall and the GLC adopted a dramatically different attitude to the traveller encampments. Legal action was regularly delayed for months on end, with the result that Thamesmead roadside verges were almost permanently disfigured by caravans. At times, there were more than 100 caravans at Thamesmead—about one fifth of all the unauthorised caravans in the whole of Greater London.

When Thamesmead Town Ltd. assumed full responsibility for the development, the position improved substantially. The impression of an open-door policy towards travellers that was built up during the GLC days was rapidly removed, and the area is now clear of caravans. Even Greenwich council, which previously proposed to provide a second permanent site for travellers in the borough, now seems to have lost some of its enthusiasm. Legal action has been taken to remove illegal encampments, even if not always as swiftly as my constituents would have wished. However, we are now faced with one of the worst cases of illegal occupation in the whole sorry history of the problems.

Towards the end of August 1987, I received complaints from local residents that, once again, travellers' caravans had moved onto the empty land alongside the southern outfall sewer at Church Manorway, Abbey Wood. That site is owned by the London borough of Greenwich, and it has been a regular target for illegal encampments in recent years.

The council's solicitor started legal proceedings that were due to be heard on 16 September 1987, when he intended to apply for a possession order against the travellers. However, on 15 September, he was requested by the deputy leader of the council to adjourn the proceedings. Apparently, that request resulted from discussions that the deputy leader had undertaken with the travellers. The situation was then considered at a special meeting of the relevant council committees on 1 October.

At that meeting, the district housing manager reported that he had been inundated with calls and complaints from frightened and concerned tenants in the area. Local allotment holders were also calling for action to stop trespassing on their nearby plots. There were complaints of damage by horses, dogs, travellers' children, and verbal and physical abuse.

The meeting authorised the reinstatement of the legal action to remove the travellers from the land. Unfortunately, by the time the matter came before the courts on 29 March 1988, the council's case had been adversely affected by a decision of the Appeal Court relating to its official Thistlebrook site. The Appeal Court judgment held that all those living on the Thistlebrook site were long-stay residents and therefore not persons of a nomadic lifestyle. In effect, that meant that Thistlebrook was not a gipsy site under the terms of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and that the council was not fulfilling the requirements of the Act. The Court of Appeal also held that Thistlebrook residents were protected by the Mobile Homes Act 1983.

Despite the Court of Appeal's decision, the council retains its designation under the 1968 Act, as it was granted by the Secretary of State for the Environment In theory, therefore, the council could try to evict illegal travellers through the magistrates courts, using its powers as a designated authority. However, in the Church Manorway case, the travellers sought an adjournment of the council's action, to enable them to apply to the High Court for a judicial review, on the ground that it was unreasonable for the council to evict them when it had been held by the Appeal Court to be in breach of its statutory duty to provide a site for people of a nomadic lifestyle. The judge granted such an adjournment. We do not yet know whether the travellers have been granted leave to apply for judicial review. Nevertheless, the council believes that similar applications will be made in respect of travellers' camps in the borough, making it difficult or impossible to move them.

The implications of the Court of Appeal's decision in that case are extremely worrying for Greenwich council. It would require it to clear the Thistlebrook site and then to re-let it to travellers, ensuring that they stay on the site for no more than six months at a time. That is certain to be a difficult and lengthy business, particularly as the Court of Appeal appears to have stated that travellers would have the protection of the Mobile Homes Act. The alternative would be for Greenwich council to provide a totally new site for a minimum of 15 caravans, to be managed on a short-stay basis. Not surprisingly, the council stated that neither alternative is in any way attractive.

Every other local authority in London and in many other parts of the country apparently operates its caravan sites on the same basis as Greenwich. Therefore, the impact of the complex legal decision will be felt on a national rather than purely local basis, and the whole thrust of the 1968 legislation could be seriously undermined.

Greenwich has sought leave to appeal to the House of Lords, but even if leave is granted, it will take time to resolve the issue and it will add substantially to the overall bill that Greenwich ratepayers must bear as a direct result of the activities of travellers who seem extremely reluctant to travel.

While the law takes its slow and stately course, my constituents in the vicinity of the Church Manorway camp are suffering intolerable nuisance. There are now at least 30 caravans, together with vans and lorries, parked on high ground overlooking the neighbouring houses. Large quantities of rubbish and litter of all kinds have been strewn down the side of the slope. Lorries regularly fly-tip massive quantities of rubble in the immediate area. Some of the travellers regularly burn copper wire and lorry tires. The resulting cloud of acrid black smoke covers the entire neighbourhood.

Worst of all, there are absolutely no sanitary facilities on the site and the standard of hygiene displayed by some of the travellers gives grave offence to many of the neighbouring residents. As one of my constituents put it to me in a letter this week: The adults and children just drop their pants and go to the toilet where ever… that is just going too far, it's disgusting. This has been going on since last August. As the warmer weather arrives, there are further complaints about flies, obnoxious smells and frequent sightings of rats feeding on the accumulated piles of filth and rubbish. The concern about the public health hazard is understandable. It is monstrous that we should have such a shanty town established with such primitive conditions in inner London in 1988.

The complaints do not relate only to the appalling impact of the encampment on the immediate environment. There are also cases of deliberate vandalism and destruction. The bowling green of the nearby Royal Arsenal sports club has been systematically dug up. Bricks and bottles have been strewn over the playing surfaces, and the groundsman has been physically threatened. It is unreasonable to expect residents to put up with such behaviour for months on end, while the courts argue out the finer points of the law.

Even Greenwich council has now been forced to consider using the Public Order Act 1986 to move some of the caravans that are now on allotment land. However, there are apparently difficulties about attempting to use these public order powers against the main encampment, since the travellers claim that they were given permission to stay on the land by the council's deputy leader.

What makes me particularly angry about this issue is that most of those who support the travellers' cause do so from a distance. They do not have to put up with the sort of conditions that my constituents in Abbey Wood and Thamesmead have regularly had to endure. I cannot help feeling that if travellers established themselves on Blackheath, or similar pleasant middle class areas, a way to move them would soon be discovered.

Nor is there any truth in the suggestion that the Thamesmead development has deprived travellers of their traditional camping sites. Before it was opened up for building, this land was occupied by the Woolwich arsenal, and it was totally secure. Even if they had been able to get into the land, the travellers would certainly not have been camping in between the remains of guns, shells, explosives and all the other military hardware that littered the land.

As the House will understand, this is an issue on which I feel strongly on behalf of my hard-pressed constituents. I have raised the general principle with successive Ministers who have had the misfortune to include responsibility for gipsies and travellers within their departmental briefs. I have raised it in the Chamber, in written questions, in correspondence and in personal meetings with Ministers, and, I must confess, with little obvious result.

The traditional attitude of Ministers was summed up by the present Secretary of State for the Environment in a written reply last year. After yet another review of the legislation, he told an expectant world: The Government have decided that there should be no amendment of the legislation at this stage, although we shall continue to keep the position under review."—[Official Report, 6 February 1987; Vol. 109, c. 856.]

This is my first encounter with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), the present Minister to deal with the matter. I hope that she will not offer that time-honoured ministerial formula, and instead will offer us some ideas as to how we can sort out the legal catch 22 in which Greenwich and many other local authorities seem to be trapped as a result of the Appeal Court ruling. Most important of all, I hope that she will offer some message of sympathy and some encouragement and hope to my Abbey Wood constituents, who have unfairly been asked to put up with far too much for far too long.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne 2:43 pm, 20th May 1988

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) for raising the issue of travellers' encampments in the Greenwich area. I know that this is a subject close to his heart and one that he has raised before in the House, in correspondence and elsewhere.

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's concern for the residents of Greenwich and for the need to ensure that public order is maintained and the law upheld. It is common ground between us that gipsies, like everyone else, must comply with the law. I hope that it is also common ground that the way forward is through the provision of adequate sites for gipsies. The Government are fully committed to this approach.

The hon. Member will recall that in February last year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced his conclusions, following the review of policy for the provision of gipsy sites. He concluded, after a careful examination of responses to a consultation letter and after considering the analysis of these responses by an independent adviser, Professor Gerald Wibberley, that the way forward was to continue with the present legislative duty to provide sites coupled with the additional controls available through designation.

I think it might be helpful if I were to outline briefly what the law has to say on the subject of gipsies. County, London borough and metropolitan district councils have a duty under section 6 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 to provide sites for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. For London boroughs and metropolitan districts, this duty is restricted to provision for up to 15 caravans at a time. However, in a number of London boroughs, such as Greenwich, there are more than that number of gipsies who have by long custom been encamped in these areas. Where this is so, and authorities can arrange for their accommodation, they should do so.

When my right hon. Friend can be satisfied that adequate provision exists for the accommodation of gipsies in a particular area, or that in all the circumstances it is not necessary or expedient to make adequate provision, he can consider an application from the local authorities, which have a statutory duty to provide accommodation, that the area should be designated under the provisions of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. Designation gives the authorities greater power to control unauthorised camping by gipsies in their area.

We recognise that there may in certain cases be a problem of interpretation of the statutory definition of gipsies. The Act defines them as persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin. Local authorities have generally been able to decide who meets this statutory definition for site provision, but the definition is wide and there is increasing concern that other groups may seek the benefits which the Act provides. We are examining this, and it may be that some further clarification will be desirable. I have to stress, however, that the onus of deciding who is a gipsy for the purposes of the statutory duty will have to rest with the local authorities themselves, in the light of the statutory definition.

The London borough of Greenwich is a designated authority which therefore enjoys additional powers for controlling unauthorised camping by gipsies. Where the council owns the land on which the encampment is situated it may apply to the county court for a possession order. As a designated authority the council may also initiate proceedings under the 1968 Act in the magistrates' court to deal with unauthorised camping and secure the removal of unlawful encampments. Where caravans are sited on highways land, the council may anyway take action under the Highways Act.

The Government consider that these powers should be sufficient to deal with unauthorised sites. It must, however, be for the council or landowner concerned to consider which specific legal remedy is most appropriate to deal with a given situation. If local residents are not satisfied with the action being taken by their council, it is open to them to press the council, to refer the matter to the local ombudsman, or to take legal advice. It is not a matter for the Government.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of the Public Order Act 1986. As he will be aware, this Act gives the police powers, acting on a complaint, in certain circumstances to remove trespassers from land. Although the Public Order Act has on occasion been used to deal with gipsies, he will know that it was enacted to deal with the problem of large hippy convoys, and not with gipsies. Greenwich as a designated authority has available to it the various powers that I have just described, and I imagine that the council may well consider it more appropriate to use the special provisions of the Caravan Sites Act, which was framed with gipsies in mind rather than resort to the Public Order Act. I should stress that this is a decision for the council, not for the Government.

I recognise the difficulties that exist over the provision of sites in some areas, including Greenwich, but we should also recognise the progress that has been made. At the beginning of the year there were, countrywide, about 258 local authority sites providing approximately 4,250 pitches for gipsy caravans. Additionally, we believe that there are 2,300 caravans on private sites. We recognise, however, that there is still a need for more than 3,000 pitches countrywide to accommodate the considerable number of gipsy caravans for which there is as yet no legal provision.

The Government have given, and will continue to give, extensive assistance to authorities in the performance of their statutory duties under the caravan Acts. We make 100 per cent. Exchequer grant available for sites provided by local authorities, and we have set aside £6 million for this purpose in the current financial year. We have issued advice to local authorities in circulars and in research reports, as a result of which there is a considerable weight of advice available on the location, design and management of sites, as well as on the promotion of private site initiatives.

We supplement formal advice with regular and informal liaison between the Department and individual local authorities, as they may require, to help them in the fulfilment of their statutory duty. In short, we have a legislative package which balances a duty to provide sites with the availability of special controls on unauthorised camping. We try to operate it sensibly and we consider that it can be made to work.

The hon. Member may like to know that the Department has had discussions with Greenwich officials as to the availability of grant for the existing authorised travellers' site at Thistlebrook. We understand that the council has since been considering possible alternative sites in the borough, which would, however, have to be acceptable to the community. The offer of financial assistance stands. It is for the council to take it up.

I understand that the council may be concerned to know where it stands with regard to the provision of gipsy sites in the light of the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case of London Borough of Greenwich v. Powell and another. The judgment as it stands clearly has some implications which we shall need to consider and which might have repercussions for gipsy site policy in a wider context.

I understand that the London borough of Greenwich has petitioned for leave to appeal against the judgment and that it has been agreed that there is to be an oral hearing of the petition, but I understand that no date has yet been fixed for the hearing. Clearly, we must await the outcome of the petition. Until we have it, there is probably not very much that we can or should do in the matter, other than to give careful consideration in cases coming for decision—for example, planning appeals and applications—to the circumstances of the individuals concerned.

It would be entirely wrong for me to comment at present upon the likely effects of the Court of Appeal judgment. I remind the House that that judgment was in fact directed towards the question of security of tenure under the provisions of the Mobile Homes Act. The merits of that question happen to turn on the question of gipsy status of the occupants of the council's site and, by extension, on the status of the site itself. So far as I can detect, local authorities are in general continuing to approach their statutory responsibilities to provide gipsy sites much as before. The problem of unauthorised camping continues to require remedial action, and it continues to be the Government's view that the provision of authorised caravan sites is the best way to provide the remedy.

Concern has been expressed about the eligibility of the borough to continue to enjoy the status of a designated area under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I assure hon. Members that there is no intention on the part of my Department to take action to disturb the present position. As I said, the important thing is to maintain the status quo until we know the outcome of the petition to appeal. We must then consider what, if any, action is necessary. Hon. Members may be assured that it will be our primary concern to ensure that any action taken is fair to all concerned and continues to tackle the problem of gipsy accommodation need and unauthorised camping.

The hon. Member referred to unauthorised encampments in Greenwich borough. I understand that in the case of Church Manor way, the council has instituted proceedings in the county court, but they have been adjourned by the court following an application by the defendants to the High Court for a judicial review of the council's decision to evict. The council has considered whether in the circumstances it should seek an alternative legal remedy, but it has been advised to pursue its existing action. I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member and local residents, but this matter is wholly within the competence of the local authority. Nor would it be appropriate for me to comment on matters that are before the courts.

I understand that the council has succeeded in obtaining eviction orders in relation to an unauthorised site at Brocklebank. It is also investigating complaints about a site at Bramshot avenue. A major issue here appears likely to be the ownership of the land.

The hon. Member criticised Greenwich council's handling of some of these matters. I appreciate the feeling of frustration among local residents if they see no action taken to deal with long-standing nuisances. The council would doubtless maintain that it has had success in dealing with some unauthorised sites. It has initiated appropriate proceedings elsewhere and cannot be held responsible for difficulties that have arisen on legal proceedings. It would not be appropriate for me to express views on those matters. They arise at local level. As I explained, the council is the locally elected body, which is answerable to its electors for its actions.

The Government's role has been to issue general guidance to authorities about their powers and duties; to offer informal advice, if desired; and to make available 100 per cent. Exchequer grant for authorised sites provided by authorities. I fully appreciate the hon. Member's concern about difficulties that have arisen in his constituency, but I trust that he will accept my contention that adequate provisions for dealing with problems exist. It must be for the local community and, if necessary, the courts to resolve them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock.