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Use traveller powers, councils told
Councils must act quicker to shut down unauthorised encampments and illegal traveller sites, local government secretary Eric Pickles has said.
He claimed that too often councils claim "nothing can be done" about the problem and fail to use the powers available to them.
New guidelines outline the legal powers councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised traveller sites, protest camps and squatters from both public and private land, as well as tackling the mess caused by the sites.
The summary of powers has been sent directly to local council leaders and the Government hopes it will give local residents a stronger voice in challenging their local authority to take action. A statement from the Department of Local Government and Communities said councils "merely need the political will to uphold the law".
Mr Pickles said: "I want all councils to be ready to take action straightaway to stop illegal camps and unauthorised sites starting in the first place. Decisive action early on saves money and unnecessary upset for local residents. We've strengthened councils' powers so they have the confidence to take decisive action. Too often, council officers wash their hands, and say nothing can be done. This is not the case.
"The public want to see fair play, with planning rules enforced consistently, rather than special treatment being given to certain groups."
He has revoked Labour's Equality and Diversity in Planning guidance, which he said told councils not to take enforcement action against unauthorised travellers, and suggested planning rules should be applied differently to individuals depending on their background.
Powers that can be used include temporary stop notices to stop and remove unauthorised caravans, pre-emptive injunctions that protect vulnerable land in advance from unauthorised encampments and possession orders to remove trespassers from land. The guidelines also stress that council officers should work closely with police and other agencies to stop camps being set up when council offices are closed.
The move is aimed at preventing another Dale Farm, where a long-running legal battle was fought before bailiffs moved in to evict travellers from the site in Essex. At the peak of the operation - which cost £7 million - 308 officers were involved, including those brought in from the Metropolitan Police, Thames Valley, Avon and Somerset, Kent, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire under mutual aid arrangements.
Joseph Jones, chairman of the Gypsy Council, accused the Government of reinforcing "negative stereotypes" about travellers. He likened its actions to the Home Office's controversial clampdown on illegal immigrants using a van telling them to go home, and the furore over Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom's "bongo bongo land" comments about foreign aid spending.