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Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

Question agreed to.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

8.4 pm

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Shoreham, in the heart of my constituency, is currently a town under siege. That quiet, mostly residential Sussex coastal town, with a population of around 15,000, is an unwilling host to some 200 travellers, who occupy a derelict former council depot in an array of some 100 assorted charabancs, buses, caravans, lorries, ex-ambulances and former military vehicles, on a site known as Ropetackle, bordering the river Adur, on the edge of Shoreham's town centre.

The shanty town at the gateway to Shoreham, in the heart of my constituency, is hardly a good advertisement for visitors or potential investors in our town--let alone the immense disruption, anxiety and anger that is being forced on the local community. It is also seriously jeopardising the long awaited Ropetackle development plan set up by English Partnerships and, I hope, to be carried forward by South East regional development agency in the near future.

The number of travellers has been growing towards the current level of 200 since the end of 1997, but it was only a few weeks ago that the local council felt able to initiate legal proceedings to have the travellers evicted. Residents in the area around Ropetackle have been driven to despair. They have faced all-night parties and flashing lights. Their houses have vibrated to the thumping noise of music. Bonfires and smoke frequently engulf the whole area at night. There is heavy drinking among the occupants, and many others, suspected of being under the influence of various other illicit substances, stumble around the area.

Rubbish is strewn across the site, wrecked cars are being done up, discarded gas canisters are strewn on the public highway--certainly a danger--electricity cables have been stretched across a public highway, and welding equipment has been left where children can play with it. Ropetackle is, in short, an environmental hazard, with 200 people living in cramped conditions. Human waste is dumped at the bottom of residents' gardens. Sewage and pollution are gratuitously dumped into the river. Fences are broken down, kids play on top of dangerous piles of wrecked cars and climb on to the adjacent railway line. Guard dogs bark all night long and scavenge around the site and the town, causing traffic accidents and attacking residents.

A neighbouring garage site--a private business--has also been occupied by the travellers, and is in danger of going under. The garage has been broken into, the proprietor is unable to use part of the land for his legitimate business, he may lose insurance cover for his business, and he has been threatened with violence by the travellers.

The whole town of Shoreham is being intimidated. Drunken travellers, often crazed out of their minds, roam the town, rummaging through bins, causing traffic accidents, being abusive to residents and terrorising little children on the way to school. There has also been an outbreak of petty crime, which is more than a coincidence. Many shops and pubs in the town of Shoreham have now

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barred travellers. Residents have organised petitions, and they are frustrated by the local police, who in many cases are powerless to bring the siege to an end.

I shall read out comments from some of the many letters that I have received on this subject from my constituents. One that I received a few weeks ago reads:

Another letter states:

    "The stress of having this in our backyard is unbearable. We could not function as a family with three young children, after losing sleep, so we have taken to sleeping in the front downstairs room of our house at weekends . . . We cancelled a Bank holiday break in Wales--which we had already paid for in advance--because we had no confidence in leaving our property vacant for 2 nights . . . This is the effect those 'spongers' of society have had on us."

Another report by residents says:

    "Children have been seen defecating over the edge of the wall on the riverside as well as people emptying buckets of waste into the river . . . It is impossible to sell houses in the vicinity of Ropetackle due to the presence of the travellers."

Many of my constituents are literally prisoners in their own home.

We are not talking about gypsies or Romanies, who are officially defined as legitimate nomadic communities, who have a pattern of travel for a specific economic purpose and who are necessarily limited in number. We are talking purely about travellers, in this case from as far afield as Eastbourne and Edinburgh and with a penchant for strong brew, who choose to opt in or out of that existence at whim--a potentially limitless constituency of people.

To prevent the travellers from encroaching on adjacent sites and other nearby council-owned open spaces, the local council has recently instituted a number of earthworks as barricades, constructed from building waste. Such are the desperate measures now being taken. The barricades are an eyesore, denying residents access to their leisure amenities, and the whole area now resembles something out of the Somme rather than the quiet, friendly Sussex coastal town that it usually is.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 should have been able to deal with all this. Plainly it is failing in this case and in many others throughout the country. Since securing this Adjournment debate I have had calls from my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who are terrorised by similar traveller occupations in their constituencies.

It was right to introduce, in the 1994 Act, measures enabling local authorities to move on travellers and giving the police powers to direct that land be vacated if at least six vehicles were present, even if no criminal activity or damage to the land was involved. Sections 61 and 77 of that Act apparently gave such powers.

However, subsequent court cases, notably those involving Lincolnshire county council and Wealden district authority, as well as cases in the European Court of Human Rights, have largely emasculated those powers, because now, unless a raft of social welfare conditions are

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taken into account, the local authority risks a legal challenge in the courts. Conditions regarding the education of travellers' children, and housing and social service needs, including statutory duties placed on local authorities under the Children Act 1989 and under the Housing Act 1985, are all used as loopholes to circumnavigate legal action.

Local authorities are now taking months--even years, in this case--to instigate legal proceedings against travellers, for fear that a successful legal challenge will ensue in the courts owing to some loophole. In the meantime, travellers literally dig themselves in deeper, the encampments attract more and more itinerants, the life of the local community is made more and more miserable, and a great deal of council time and resources are taken up by the need to prepare legal cases, to clear up around travellers and, in the case of Adur council, to build defences--fortification works--around the travellers--not to mention the immense cost of the police time involved.

The Government have now actually made matters worse. Despite parliamentary questions tabled by many hon. Members, Ministers continue to insist that powers given to police and local authorities under the 1994 Act are perfectly adequate and that the Government have no plans to change them. A while ago, the Minister for Local Government and Housing tantalised us by promising a research project on the subject, and the Minister for London and Construction today promised us the good practice advice which he launched in October 1998.

However, at that time the Government effectively relaxed restrictions on where new age travellers and gypsies can camp, specifically advising police and local authorities in future to identify acceptable temporary stopping places, and imposing on them a duty to tell travellers under what circumstances they will be allowed to stay on unauthorised sites without being evicted. In practice, this amounts to nothing less than a charter for squatters--an invitation to travellers to occupy first and ask questions later.

This last consideration has been seized upon by travellers at Ropetackle and elsewhere to apply for tenure when occupying derelict council-owned land for which no immediate development plans are in force. Indeed, some of the smarter occupants of the site in Shoreham submitted a formal proposal to Adur district council requesting a short-term licence agreement to stay. In a letter to councillors, the very word processor-proficient organiser of the travellers specifically drew attention to the recently issued Government guidance to local authorities on managing unauthorised camping in support of their claim to remain on the land.

The letter said:

The letter refers to circular 18/94, which the travellers are using in support of staying on an unauthorised encampment where they are causing merry hell for the indefinable future.

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