Criticism over inaction at travellers sites in Billington and other parts of Central Bedfordshire is prompting the council to toughen its stance.
Temporary traveller sites and more staff to deal with gipsy and traveller-related issues are part of a package of responses by the local authority.
It appears lessons are being learned from actions taken over the Greenacres and The Stables travellers’ sites in Billington.
A half-a-million-pound budget including two new officer posts, and new temporary 28-day sites are in the pipeline, according to a report to the council’s sustainable communities overview and scrutiny committee.
Meanwhile, South-West Bedfordshire MP Andrew Selous has been seeking leave to bring in a Bill on local authorities and housing provision for gipsy and traveller communities, which has had its first reading in Parliament.
The legislation would potentially include:
> making provision for the conversion of caravan sites into settled accommodation;
> requiring local authorities to provide temporary caravan stopping sites where there is a demonstrated need;
> creating a criminal offence of unauthorised encampment;
> making provision about the education of gipsy and traveller children;
> and requiring schools to have regard to gipsy and traveller culture and heritage in teaching.
There are 38 permanent gipsy and traveller sites in Central Bedfordshire, a further two which are council-owned, and nine for travelling showpeople.
The majority are “well run and integrated with the local community, and very few issues reported”, says the report.
It lists the challenges the council has faced at Billington, saying: “Some sites are more complex, pose more challenges and need more input.”
The council has been dealing with “breaches of planning permissions, absence of licensing, sub-letting of caravans, and unsafe infrastructure relating to sewage, clean water and electricity”.
Other issues have included “anti-social behaviour, crime, including previous reports of modern day slavery, and local community concerns and impact”.
Measures have been taken by the council in response to past complaints, which the report outlines.
Stakeholder groups for residents and parish councils are established and working well, the document explains.
There is “significantly improved information and intelligence about plots, owners and interested parties, reduced fly-tipping, and abatement notices served on some unsafe caravans”.
Alternative accommodation has been provided for some tenants, and CBC makes regular visits to engage with residents.
Enforcement work has begun and PCNs issued, adds the report, while the local authority is also issuing “personal circumstance questionnaires”.
There is also a section focusing on the council’s approach to unauthorised encampments (UAEs).
This has involved prevention work, such as barriers and ditches, at 15 sites, obtaining an injunction “prohibiting 11 individuals from setting up UAEs in our area” and “protecting parcels of land from UAEs”.
CBC has appointed a full-time UAE officer, and has been lobbying government with the help of local MPs, including Mr Selous, to strengthen legislation.
The report says the number of UAEs has fallen from 95 between January and September last year to 70 in the same period this year.
Of these, 54 were on local authority-owned land last year, with 25 in 2018.
The council admits it wants to learn from Billington in its approach to working elsewhere in Central Bedfordshire.
It hopes the temporary stopping sites (TSS) will continue to cut the number of UAEs.
These managed TSS will allow for short stays, “normally 28 days”, says the report.
Toilets, water, and waste collection will be provided, and the sites will be located in non-residential areas, with access to core services.
The occupants will pay rent and a deposit, while travellers will “sign a licence to occupy which is supported by police S.62 powers”.
The two new permanent officer posts will increase the council’s capacity for engagement and enforcement, adds the report.
Their role will include:
• manage both enforcement and engagement approaches ensuring a consistent and agreed approach by the council;
• provide a central hub for broader issues and act as the contact on gipsy and traveller matters for the council, public and travelling community;
• manage the TSS, improving access by the gipsy and traveller community to council services;
• support the development of collaborative working between the council and
the travelling community;
• develop networks with specialist gipsy and traveller organisations (nationally and locally) to develop best practice in Central Bedfordshire;
• and create specialist legal networks to ensure enforcement is successful.
The council has to agree to identify suitable land for TSS, having presented a business case for approval.
And councillors will be asked to support the recommendations set out in the presentation on gipsy and traveller responsiveness.
If agreed at a meeting on Thursday (November 22), the package of measures will go to the executive “to decide that the necessary funding should be included in the council’s medium-term fiscal policy”.