Article by Tommy Wathen and Hannah Kane: A Billericay councillor has started a petition in a bid to make traveller encampments illegal, after a group set up camp in various locations across the town.
Andrew Schrader, councillor for Billericay East, has started the petition to get the Government to introduce a new law making it illegal for travellers to deliberately trespass onto land.
A spotlight has been shone on the petition, after the town saw two illegal incursions- one on Hannakins Farm and the other on Radford Crescent.
One group broke into the grounds of Hannakins Farm and residents claim they repeatedly drove around the pitches at the neighbouring community centre until the grass was dug up.
A mother said her son was devastated, as he was unable to play football as a result.
On the petition, Cllr Schrader calls for the Government to follow suit after the Republic of Ireland made "deliberate trespass" illegal. He said:
"We’ve had this big traveller incursion recently at Hannakins Farm in Billericay just recently, but I actually put this in motion at the tail-end of last year. The Conservative councillors on Basildon Council have been lobbying the MPs for the borough for ages to take action because we definitely felt that there was a gap in the law. The issue is that trespass is currently a civil matter and not classed as a criminal offence. I think the assumption from the locals is usually that ‘if I just pitched up without permission on this land then I’d be arrested’, but actually you wouldn’t because it is a civil matter. Landowners or local authorities have to go through this really lengthy court process, they have to serve notice and give the travellers time to comply with it – it takes ages and costs a fortune. I moved a motion at full council in December calling on the council to firstly contribute towards that consultation constructively, but in particular to take up the suggestion of introducing an Irish-style criminal offence charge for deliberate trespass. I am hoping that the petition will help to strengthen my argument and convince Basildon Council that they should back the so-called Irish option. That option is where a uniformed officer can say ‘you shouldn’t be here’ and ‘you need to move’ and if they don’t, they can be arrested – simple as."
Travellers arrived at Hannakins Farm on Tuesday (February 6) evening
"Assuming that I can persuade Basildon Council to support that option, then we will feed that back to government. I’m hoping that if we can get enough support, we can convince the government to change the laws in this way. As it stands, the law is just not adequate as it takes between seven and ten working days on average to move an illegal encampment. In that time, the destruction and disruption to the local community is immense."
Photos from Hannakins Farm showed the destruction caused to the playing fields and Cllr Schrader says it will have a "devastating effect" on the local community. He continued:
"Anyone that has seen the pictures from Hannakins Farm of the destruction caused, those playing fields are more than likely to be out of service now for the rest of the season. It will have a devastating effect on the local community, the sports clubs that use the facility, the hall was shut for about a week so no events could be held there or any community meetings that take place – it is a very well-used facility. Local residents have a reasonable expectation that the local amenities and facilities that their tax money helps to fund should be available to them. Last year, you had a group parked outside the church in Laindon and I think the clean-up operation after that was thousands and thousands of pounds. The Labour-led administration that is currently running Basildon Council are talking about putting council tax up by three per cent, which is the most that they can without triggering a referendum. Part of their justification for that is to put in CCTV, bollards and barriers to try and combat illegal encampments, but the financial consequences for the residents is tremendous. I think it is completely unreasonable and a burden upon members of the settled community. It also does the legitimate, law-abiding Gypsey traveller community no favours at all either because we do have lots and lots of traveller communities who live side-by-side with the settled community perfectly harmoniously. Groups like the ones set up at Hannakins Farm just give them a bad name, upset the settled community and it is just bad for everybody so something needs to change."
Basildon Council's statement on the unauthorised incursions
Basildon Council has been working closely with the police and Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU) following a number of unauthorised traveller encampments in the borough since the weekend.
Travellers who formed an unauthorised encampment at Hannakins Farm Community Centre last week moved on to Radford Crescent car park in Billericay yesterday following issue of a court order. Essex Police then served a Section 61 Direction to move on from this location, which they did today (Wednesday 7 February).
The group then pitched up in the car park of the Basildon Sporting Village, in Cranes Farm Road, but quickly moved on after being reminded by police of a High Court injunction which covers this area. The injunction was obtained by the council in November last year preventing unauthorised encampments at specified industrial and park areas within the borough that had been targeted by travellers over the last couple of years.
Late on Tuesday (6 February) a separate group of travellers parked up on land at Hannakins Farm Community Centre, causing damage to sports pitches and bollards in the process. This group also left following service of a Section 61 Direction.
The council has agreed to undertake the work to restore the pitches to their previous state at no cost to the trustees of Hannakins Farm Community Centre.
Cllr Gavin Callaghan, Basildon Council’s Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, said: “In conjunction with partners, we are continuing to tackle these kinds of incursions, which are a blight on our neighbourhoods, communities and businesses. I would like to thank council, ECTU and police officers for their swift and collaborative approach in dealing with these encampments this week. The council will support the police in taking every action possible in bringing those to justice who cause criminal damage.
“We recognise the negative effect these encampments have on local residents, business and community groups and will be carrying out resurfacing works and repairs at Hannakins Farm free of charge. We will also be writing a letter of thanks to the police for their support over the last couple of days and will urge them to take action against those who caused this criminal damage.”
Basildon Council is aware of the current traveller encampment at Ramsden Crays Recreation Ground car park and is working in partnership with Essex Countywide Traveller Unit and Essex Police to take appropriate action.
Cllr Schrader continued;
"It was appalling. It is so unfair. You can imagine how full my inbox has been with emails from residents with concerns like their kids are in the football club or when they will be able to use the facilities or is it safe to go there? The travellers have now left Hannakins Farm, but the pictures that are doing the rounds online show that the heart has been ripped out of this community.”
Article by Tommy Wathen and Hannah Kane, Essex Live