Monday, 19 September 2011

Travellers illegally camping on Stirchley Playing Fields (again!)

Travellers have set up camp on Stirchley Playing Fields again, only a month or so after being evicted from the exact same spot by Telford & Wrekin Council.

These are the same travellers as last time and they visit the area periodically to visit a family friend who lives nearby.  The possession order granted to Telford & Wrekin council last time the travellers set up camp there is still in force and the travellers should be moved on shortly by court-appointed bailiffs.

The subject of travellers and illegal sites is topical at the moment with the aborted attempt today at evicting the former travellers who have been living at Dale Farm for the last decade.  You may have heard me on BBC Radio Shropshire this morning offering my opinion on travellers and illegal sites.  I believe that if someone makes the lifestyle choice to live in a caravan rather than a house then that is their choice and it's wrong to try and force them to live in a house.  However, just as I couldn't decide to buy a plot of land and build a house on it without getting planning permission, neither can travellers build houses or toilet blocks or even permanently site caravans on a plot of land they've bought without getting planning permission.

The law applies to travellers just as much as it applies to people who live in houses, tents, cars or on the streets.  Moving around the country, sleeping in a caravan and disengaging with society doesn't mean you can opt out of the law.  Local authorities have an obligation to enforce planning regulations and in the case of Dale Farm I think they were right to seek the eviction of travellers from that part of Dale Farm that cannot legally be used as a camp site and the demolition of buildings that have been illegally constructed (part of Dale Farm is a legal camp site, just not all of it).

I understand the argument about the travellers having nowhere else to go but they've had months at least to look for alternative sites and have been offered pitches by other traveller communities.  I understand that their children will have to leave the local school which is unfortunate but thousands of children every year are forced to change schools when their parents move to a different part of the country.  I understand that there are elderly people living there who will lose their homes of the last 10 years but thousands of elderly people every year are evicted from their homes or forced to move for medical reasons.  The only difference, then, is that they describe themselves as travellers (despite having lived in the same place for a decade) but in the eyes of the law that makes no difference.

Which brings me back, in a roundabout way, to the travellers on Stirchley Playing Fields.  They may have a valid reason to visit Stirchley (not that they need one) but they have no legal right to camp there.  There is a campsite in Tweedale, no more than a couple of miles away - walking distance in fact - from where they are now which I am sure they would be able to get a pitch on if they tried.

It cost the taxpayer over £1,000 to move these travellers on a few weeks ago and clean up after they had gone - money which could have been spent on more useful things like libraries or schools.  There won't be any legal costs to have them removed this time because the court order is still valid but Telford & Wrekin Council will still have to spend time applying for enforcement of their court order and the courts will have to pay bailiffs to move them on and the council will have to pay to clean the site up - the bill for all of this falls at the taxpayer's feet.

Of course, making more space available on the council-run travellers sites might help cut the number of illegal sites the council has to deal with on a yearly basis but they cost money to build and run and if travellers such as these won't pay to use a legitimate, private caravan site within walking distance of where they are illegally camped now, they are unlikely to pay to use a council-run site on the other side of the town.

Anyway, if you've made it this far down the post and are still interested, the travellers camping illegally on Stirchley Playing Fields should be moved on some time tomorrow.