The leader of Test Valley Borough Council (TVBC) has welcomed plans by the government to criminalise unauthorised encampments in England.

Under the proposals, announced on Monday, residing on public or private land without permission in vehicles which causes ‘significant’ distress to local communities would become an offence. It would be punished with up to a £2,500 fine, three months imprisonment, or both.

Test Valley Borough Council previously wrote to the government to voice its support for such a move, and Councillor Phil North said the law would be “an additional weapon in our armoury”.

He said: “We welcome this move by the government to make deliberate trespass a criminal offence, and indeed wrote to them to encourage them to take this action some months ago.

“Though we are generally well protected in and around Andover thanks to the injunction we secured last year, this will be an additional weapon in our armoury to help guard against illegal traveller incursions across Test Valley as a whole.”

At present in English law, trespass is a civil rather than criminal offence. As such, police cannot take action against trespassers unless there are certain circumstances, such as an injunction. Following a number of traveller encampments in and around Andover, TVBC applied for such an injunction, which was granted in July last year.

This has since been used a number of times to remove encampments in town, most recently next to The Lights Theatre, where Andover’s vaccination programme is going ahead.

In September, TVBC councillors passed a motion to lobby the government for “the urgent creation of criminal offences of trespass when setting up an unauthorised encampment, entering upon land as a trespasser with the purpose of residing there in a vehicle and residing in an unauthorised encampment.”

Under the new law, police will be able to arrest anyone who sets up an unauthorised encampment. It will only apply to over-18s using vehicles to reside on land without the owner’s permission, who have or are likely to cause “significant damage, disruption or distress” to the community.

If the trespassers do not comply with a request from the landowner or police to leave the land, or return within 12 months of having done so, they are then liable to be arrested. They could then be punished with a fine of up to £2,500, three months imprisonment, or both.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said: “This new offence will enable the police to fine or arrest those residing without permission on private or public land in vehicles in order to stop significant disruption, distress or harm being caused to the law-abiding majority.

“I am delivering on my commitment to give the police the powers they need to tackle these encampments swiftly and effectively.”

The move was criticised by Abbie Kirkby, Public Affairs and Policy Manager at the traveller charity Friends, Families and Travellers, who said negotiations should be prioritsied over the creation of new laws.

She said:“The Government seems hell bent on introducing tougher police powers for people living on roadside camps, even though all the evidence is stacking up against them – in their own consultation it is clear that most respondents don’t want tougher powers. The views of the majority of consultation respondents have been ignored, opening the door to a harsh and unfair set of proposals which punish some of the UK’s minority ethnic groups, who already face some of the starkest inequalities.

“Our research shows that the majority of police respondents are against the proposals and also that there is a chronic national shortage of places to stop. The Government should not imprison people, fine them and remove their homes for the ‘crime’ of having nowhere to go. Another way is possible. Through negotiated stopping and by identifying land where Traveller sites can be built, councils can ensure nomadic families have a safe place to stop, save money on evictions and improve relations between travelling and settled communities. Everybody needs a place to live.”