To consider an update report on the Council’s policies and procedures for handling unauthorised traveller encampments.
The Committee considered a report, set out at Agenda pages 35 to 50, which gave details of the Council’s powers, policies and procedures relating to unauthorised encampments.
Nick Austin (Assistant Director, Customer and Localities), Nigel Bailey (Assistant Director, Customer and Localities) and Sarah Lynch (Senior Specialist Housing Manager) attended the meeting to present the report and answer Member questions.
The report set out how the Council was working to prevent and mitigate any detrimental impact caused to communities or land. It gave details of increased preventative measures at vulnerable sites in addition to improved communications with the public and joint working with partner organisations.
The report proposed the provision of annual training for Members which would refresh their knowledge of the Council’s powers and procedures and enable them to provide more effective advice for residents. Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was proposed to hold the first training session in August 2020.
Appended to the report was a draft leaflet, jointly produced with Thames Valley Police, which provided information on police and Council powers relating to unauthorised encampments. Once finalised, the leaflet would be posted onto the Council’s website.
Other issues addressed in the report included:
· Sharing best practice among neighbouring authorities and the Community Safety Partnership;
· Meeting future needs of the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller (GRT) communities through additional provision in the Local Plan Update;
· Improving relationships with private landowners who frequently experienced unauthorised encampments;
· Preventative measures at WBC sites and further advice to private landowners;
· Potential for Borough-wide injunctions against named individuals.
The report also set out responses to specific issues raised previously by members of the Committee.
In the ensuing discussion, Members raised the following points.
How did the Council provide information and support to residents, landowners, elected Members and travellers? Currently, there was little information or contact details on the Council website. It was confirmed that, once finalised, a publicity leaflet (appended to the report) would be available and would be posted on the Council website.
Do Officers monitor good practice in other local authority areas, such as Elmbridge, Essex, Salford and Thurrock? It was confirmed that Council websites were monitored for information and that Officers would welcome Member insights into good practice in other parts of the country.
The information on Officer time allocated to dealing with unauthorised encampments appeared to contain inconsistencies. How robust was the information? It was confirmed that the time recording system needed to be strengthened to ensure that the reported figures were more accurate.
The report stated that there had been 21 unauthorised encampments in the Borough during the Covid-19 period. What special arrangements were in place during this period and what issues arose? It was confirmed that a tolerated stopping site had been operated at Mereoak, in partnership with Reading Borough Council (RBC). Discussions were ongoing with RBC about the future of this site. Longer term options were also under consideration.
What powers did the Council have in relation to private landowners who did not seek the removal of unauthorised encampments? It was confirmed that work was ongoing with the Community safety Partnership on this issue and that the Council was able to use bailiffs to clear sites as necessary. A database of private landowners was being developed in order to improve communications in the event of an unauthorised encampment.
Were systems in place for welfare checks on children and other vulnerable people on these sites? It was confirmed that systems were in place to support children and vulnerable adults. Children’s Services were informed of any potential safeguarding issues. Members of the GRT community were recognised as persons with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.
In relation to the potential provision of a traveller transit site within the Borough, could the business case for such a site be referred to the Committee in draft form for comment? It was confirmed that a further report would be submitted to the Committee as necessary.
In relation to an unauthorised encampment at Chestnut Avenue, there was concern that communication about progress in resolving the situation had not been effective. It was confirmed that communications could have been more effective and that this learning would be incorporated into the handling of future sites.
The report stated that one family had been present at a significant number of unauthorised encampments. Was it possible to take action to address this issue? It was confirmed that Officers were investigating the potential for taking action, possibly through an injunction against a named family.
What progress was being made in discussions with the Berkshire unitaries on the issue of unlawful encampments? It was confirmed that discussions had been held up by the Covid-19 pandemic, but would be progressed. An example of joint cooperation was the work with Reading Borough Council on the Mereoak site.
1) Nick Austin, Nigel Bailey and Sarah Lynch be thanked for attending the meeting to present the report and answer Member questions;
2) the actions set out in the report aimed at the prevention and mitigation of unauthorised encampments be noted;
3) responses be provided to the specific issues raised by members of the Committee;
4) Member comments and feedback be incorporated into proposals to deliver service improvements and improved communications relating to unauthorised encampments;
5) the proposed business case for any future traveller transit sites be submitted to the Committee for scrutiny;
6) the actions set out in the report aimed at increasing permitted Gypsy, Roma and Traveller site provision, via the Local Plan Update, be noted;
7) the provision of additional information and guidance for the public and private landowners be supported;
8) the proposed annual Member training sessions, commencing in August 2020, be supported.