The visit by travellers to our park at Monkspath, actually called Hillfield Local nature Reserve, on Monday evening naturally caused a lot of problems. As a regular user of the park myself I avoided taking my dog over to the park. In fact, the whole of the main car park was taken up with over ten caravans and associated vehicles.
I was alerted to the incursion early on Tuesday morning and went down to photograph the scene, only to be chased away by a travellers in white van. I posted the images on my Facebook page and even the Solihull Observer asked to use one for their report.
Solihull Council officers were alerted and attended to undertake their usual procedure in dealing with travellers who have trespassed on council property. Because of previous experiences I accepted that there would be no eviction until about seven days after the eviction notice had been served. Here, readers may remember the local newspapers coverage of similar incidents at Rough Close, the Powergen site and Chadwick End (where a substantial amount of damage was caused).
Issues that are crucial to this incident are; the land was a public car park; access was gained via the cutting of a bolt for the gate; the council has adopted a Gypsy and Travellers plan (created a few extra plots).
In relation to the damage: unfortunately there is no evidence to show any particular person caused the damage to the bolt. Therefore any arrest would not be made. It is easy for me to allege guilt by association but no action can be taken via the criminal law. This is why civil powers have to be adopted. There are two gates at the entrance. One is a normal gate, the other a higher one to prevent vehicles as high as caravans entry. It is this one that was broken.
The councils Traveller and Gypsy Plan (link posted here: Gypsy_and_Traveller_Site_Allocations_Plan) allows for some extra 25+ caravan plots in the borough over the life time of the plan. In Blythe ward we added one plot to the existing site at Slater Street and authorised an existing site in dickens Heath Road. This is just past the Miller and Carter restaurant and many people are not aware that an unauthorised site of three caravans had been in existence for over 25 years. The site is in the back garden of the owner of the bungalow. By making this site authorised, and allowing space for one more caravan, and looking at other sites in the borough, we met the criteria set for ensuring the successful adoption of this plan. This certainly helped the early removal of the travellers at Monkspath, whereas trespasses before the adoption of the plan took about seven days.
The damage caused is not inconsiderable but is nowhere near as bad as that left at Chadwick End recently. The clean-up will cost a few hundred pounds of our money. A comment was made on the Facebook page about whether it would be cost effective to provide travellers with mobile toilets – thus no toilet waste would be left onsite. This is a credible economic suggestion but still has a cost to it and may encourage the travellers to think they can stay. As we do have sites in the borough with lots of facilities (already provided by the tax payer) we may be doing a bit too much.
I have posted here Government guidelines on the effective use of enforcement powers: Travellers – enforcement powewrs. You will note there are substantial powers for both the police and local authorities. In effect, I read the police and local authority can evict travellers very quickly. However, in practice tit is not so easy.
When I was a police inspector at Acocks Green (in 1996 I think) I used the power under Sections 61-62 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. I served a form on the travellers (who were on private land) that they will arrested if they remained on the land after 6am the next morning. I had the serving of the notices videoed (they were large cameras in those days) and when I went back on duty at 6am the next day I found they had moved off. The other thing is, I had done this on my own initiative (I had the reputation of being a maverick) and had not told my senior officers. My bluff had worked because in practice I could have done very little. If, say the men folk, are arrested then what would happen to the women and children? No matter what our own personal views, the local authorities would have to house the remaining families and if the women are also arrested then the children would have to go into care. These have real substantial costs to them.
This, I hope, shows the hidden issues the police and local authorities have to negotiate round when dealing with travellers trespassing on public or private land. There is no quick fix.
Residents of Monkspath and Hillfield might remember previous visits to the park. Once travellers trespassed on the land adjoining Lakeside Drive. The council put up posts along the edge of the park only to see them removed when travellers returned; there is now a small bund at this location.
I do appreciate residents concerns that more should have been done but in reality we got off lightly here in Monkspath. This is not to say everything was right. I note the lack of regional/national intelligence, by police and local authorities, on the movement of travellers and feel this may be an option. If any of us travel to any city or town to regularly cause anti social behaviour or shoplift then I am sure an order would be granted to ban us from that area, with arrest and detention being the punishment is this order is contravened. I would like to explore how such powers can be used if any of the families that trespassed on the park ever returned to Solihull. It is essential this is undertaken on at least a regional basis. In the meantime I am asking for a meeting of council officers, police and certain councillors to examine the practice in Solihull and report on how powers are used and examine what else can be done.
I hope this dissertation helps explain things and answers the questions/comments on the excellent Monkspath and Hillfield Facebook page.