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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate, and on giving us and Madam Deputy Speaker the opportunity to turn the lights out in the Chamber at the end of this year.
Like my hon. Friend, I take the problems associated with illegal camping very seriously. I know my hon. Friend has been concerned for some time about unauthorised camping by travellers in his constituency. I am also aware that he has written to the Highways Agency on several occasions about the travellers who occupied agency land, in particular near the A50 at Foston in Derbyshire.
In the first instance, the agency should have identified the vulnerability of the site and secured it appropriately. Secondly, it should have made the site more secure once the travellers had been removed, which would have prevented re-occupation. I believe that a 2-ft bund was built on the second occasion, which was clearly inadequate when it was known that the travellers were in the gardening business and had the tools to move a small bund. Unfortunately, that had escaped the notice of the people who secured the site.
I am pleased to say that the travellers were evicted for a second time on 17 October this year, and that the site has now been completely cleansed, properly secured and tenanted, and is awaiting sale.
I fully recognise that gypsies and travellers must have somewhere to live. I am sure that my hon. Friend realises also that beginning, or contributing to, an ongoing cycle of eviction is not a sensible, fair or sustainable way forward. Nevertheless, there are occasions when eviction is the only appropriate course of action.
The Highways Agency acquires land in connection with the construction and development of the strategic road network. After construction, any surplus land parcels are identified for disposal. That was the case at Foston, where the land was being reinstated prior to disposal, when it was illegally occupied. The agency works to meet Treasury disposal time scales in completing this procedure. It is my belief that these sites should be disposed of as rapidly as is practicable after it is found that they are surplus to requirements.
Eviction of unauthorised campers on land adjacent to the highway is dealt with by the police, given the obvious road safety implications. They can, and do, use their powers to remove any obstruction or safety hazard to road users. The position is more complicated where illegal camping occurs on Highways Agency land not directly connected to the highway. As my hon. Friend has stated, the Highways Agency, as a public body, must work within the policy set by Government for dealing with illegal camping. Consequently, great care needs to be exercised when taking the decision as to whether to evict the gypsies or travellers. The right balance must be struck between the needs of the gypsies and travellers and the concerns of the wider community, whose interests my hon. Friend has represented.
The general approach by all bodies when dealing with unauthorised camping on land not directly connected to the highway is that responses must be proportionate and carefully considered. That was the approach taken by the Highways Agency in the Foston case. As I am sure my hon. Friend understands, to have done otherwise would have left the agency vulnerable to criticism, and even action in the courts.
I realise that my hon. Friend feels that the Highways Agency has not been as quick in handling these incidents as other public bodies. I have asked the agency to investigate how it can capture the experience of other Government agencies, and make the necessary improvements.
In the case of the Foston encampment, the fact that the land was surplus and ready for sale, the environmental concerns and the high level of local concern all carried significant weight. Nevertheless, the Highways Agency had to consider the arguments in favour of eviction against the travellers' right to education and housing and their health needs. Obviously the agency had to seek advice from other bodies when considering those counter-arguments. The need to consider such factors does take time in the process of trying to repossess land. As I have said, failure to give adequate consideration to such issues could have led to court action against the Highways Agency.
The agency believes it acts within the Government's best-practice guidance: that is what it tells me. Let me set out the main sequence of events at the Foston site. The agency first became aware of the illegal occupation on 26 March 2003. The next day officials sought urgent reports from the local education, health and social services departments, and the police. It was clear by 31 March that there was considerable local disquiet over the travellers' behaviour, and by 2 April the agency had advised the Treasury Solicitor's Office of the illegal occupation and the possible need for litigation. On that same day, the local health officer reported that there were no health concerns among the travellers.
On 3 April, the Highways Agency was advised that seven of the children on the site wished to attend school. The local education officer asked that the families be allowed to remain until the Easter school break on 12 April. While the agency could have proceeded with eviction action at that point, it chose not to. The decision was in line with Government policy to encourage greater education opportunities among the travelling community. A notice to vacate was not served until 9 April, which would come into effect after the end of the school term.
The first court hearing took place on 23 May. The last of the travellers moved off the site on 29 May, and bunding was put in place to secure the site and prevent re-entry. With the benefit of hindsight, the agency now accepts that the bunding was inadequate in the circumstances.
The next day, the agency's managing agent was instructed to obtain quotations for clearing the site. The agency approved the implementation of additional remedial works to prevent reoccupation on 22 August. However, the travellers reoccupied the site on 23 August, having breached the bunding.
The agency took the view, given the problems from the previous occupation, that the second illegal occupation had to be ended forthwith. However, it was again necessary to have regard to the travellers' needs. The other agencies' reports were received by mid-September, and by 9 October a further notice was sent to the occupiers.
Once the court hearing on 13 October had found in favour of the Highways Agency, the travellers were removed within four days. I believe that the site has now been completely cleaned, and I understand that action is in hand to sell it back to the former owner of the land. The site access has been blocked with sizeable concrete
I understand that the immediate costs arising from the Foston occupations were in the region of £31,000, yet putting in place the concrete barriers to begin with would probably have cost less than £2,000. This seems to be a case of a penny being spent today perhaps saving a pound wasted tomorrow. I hope that the Highways Agency will take note of that point. As my hon. Friend said, the majority of the costs related to site clearance, the remainder consisting of legal fees, police overtime and the provision of bunding and concrete blocks.
My hon. Friend has expressed concern about alleged illegally dumped waste at Foston. The Environment Agency has inspected the site and could identify only non-hazardous waste related to the work that the travellers were carrying out. It consisted mainly of tree clippings and a small quantity of building waste. No prosecutions could be brought, as it was impossible to ascertain its source to a prosecutable standard.
Mr. Todd: Will my hon. Friend concede that, despite the fact that the waste was undoubtedly non-hazardous, it was nevertheless deposited illegally, its carriage on to the site was almost certainly illegal as well, and the agency had taken no steps to prevent either offence?
I have made the Highways Agency aware of my concern at its lack of action in dealing with illegal waste dumping on its land. My hon. Friend pointed out that the agency provided 24-hour security at the Willington site. That action was instigated because the site still had a building on it. Although the structure was in a poor state of repair, the agency has a duty to protect its buildings from damage, so it employed a guard to do so. This measure had the additional effect of deterring re-occupation by travellers. The agency has agreed to investigate more proactive procedures to prevent illegal waste dumping, and to work much more closely with local enforcement agencies.
I accept that the Highways Agency could have acted more proactively in the Foston case, and I hope that it has learned very important lessons. It is clear that there is significant room for further improvement. In particular, the agency will reassess the vulnerability of its land, and secure it from illegal entry where the risk is considered high. I have instructed it to do that as a matter of urgency, both in my hon. Friend's constituency and in other areas of high traveller activity. It will review its procedures for securing land following eviction. It will also bear this issue in mind when acquiring new areas of land, in order to pre-empt the possibility of illegal occupation, and it will implement appropriate security measures. One of the most valuable lessons learned is the importance of working closely with all other interested parties, including the local community, public agencies and law enforcement bodies. It would appear that this liaison needs improvement, and the agency will need to look at how other public landowners handle illegal occupation and
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and for giving me the opportunity to explain the Highways Agency's handling of illegal camping at Foston. There have been mistakes, for which the agency sincerely apologises. It will take on board the valid points that he makes, and I am confident that in futureunder the leadership of the new chief executive, Archie Robinson, in whom I have enormous confidencethe handling of these matters will be sharpened, and lessons will have been learned. As always, my hon. Friend has raised such matters in a diligent way on his constituents' behalf. He has made an important point, which will prove of benefit to many other people, as well.
I take this opportunity to wish you a very merry Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker, and a happy and successful new year. It is a pleasure for us to be here tonight, making the last contribution of the year. I look forward to making many further contributions, and to enjoying debates with you in the Chair.