§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Charlotte Atkins.]
§ 6 pm
§ Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab)
I fear that the debate will have no seasonal edge. Illegal camping does not relate to Santa Claus, his elves and his reindeer, exhausted from delivering presents in South Derbyshire, finding temporary sustenance there. It is a regular nuisance that my constituents constantly fear and face. On this occasion, I want to concentrate on that nuisance when it occurs on Highways Agency property.
Few people in South Derbyshire have much good will towards those who camp illegally in our area, avoid the two authorised sites, damage other people's properties and leave often repulsive waste behind them when they go. Few will send Christmas cards to public bodies that are supine in the face of that illegality and throw public money away rather than using their legal rights as property owners.
I have raised matters that relate to illegal camping on several occasions in the House. Tonight, I shall focus on the way in which the Highways Agency handles intrusion on its property. I intend to refer to only two sites in my constituency, about which I have substantial facts that are based on my correspondence and parliamentary questions. Travellers' occupation of agency land in South Derbyshire is common, yet the obvious lessons that I shall present in the debate are never learned.
In April 2000, travellers occupied an agency site at the junction of the A38 and the A50 near Willington in my constituency. They were there for some time, and obvious and blatant breaches of law took place. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 seeks to prevent dumping waste at unauthorised sites. It also attempts to prevent the carriage of waste in unauthorised vehicles—clearly a dangerous and often unhygienic activity. The penalties for offences can rightly be severe and include confiscating vehicles.
The occupiers of the site turned it into something like a battlefield. Stripped-down, burnt-out cars were scattered over the site, which was in full public view. Entrance to it and activities on it could readily be observed. When the travellers left—the Highways Agency was so tardy in pursuing possession that they eventually left of their own accord—the agency cleared the site at a public cost of nearly £14,000. It spent nearly £4,000 erecting barriers at the entrance and a further £17,000 establishing a 24-hour watch on the site. A person lived in a caravan there to prevent a repetition of events. The figures exclude agency time, abortive legal costs and doubtless much else that fell outside the narrow confines of my parliamentary question. The site was sold and no occupations have since taken place.
What do we learn from the first incident? First, the agency possessed pockets of land, of some value to someone else, that it did not know what to do with. Once road schemes are completed, surplus land should be rapidly disposed of. Secondly, the agency is slow in obtaining possession. I am well aware that, like any public agency, the Highways Agency must act within the law and according to Government guidance on the 1807 matter. Correspondence with the agency constantly reiterates that anxiety. However, other public bodies—for example, the district and county councils in my area—perform similar obligations far more quickly, and they are governed by the same guidance and law. In some instances, the agency is prepared to go to some expense to protect a site once it has been violated. I shall return to this point later, because this is something that the chief executive of the agency appears not to recall.
The agency has little knowledge of environmental law. In the case of the illegal carriage of waste, it need be demonstrated only that a vehicle was being used for that purpose. No identification of the driver is required, and even perfunctory observation of this or other sites would have yielded prosecutable evidence without confrontation with individuals.
Let me turn to the next ease. In March, a group of travellers occupied a large agency site adjacent to the A50 at Foston. Again, it rapidly became obvious that waste carriage and dumping was taking place. It took until 9 May for proceedings to go to court. No attempts were made to impede activity on site, or to prosecute blatant offenders. Following my initial queries, the agency explained its approach thus:Unauthorised encampments are generally tolerated, particularly if there are no authorised sites to which the Gypsies may move. The Agency would not wish to move a problem on to other private land, especially if it meant worse problems might be created. This advice has been used in this case, resulting in the queried delays.It is worth noting—clearly the writer of this letter was ignorant of this fact—that this site is within walking distance of an authorised site on Woodyard Lane. There is no evidence that the agency liaised with either the district council, which manages the site, or the county council, which is responsible for it, to determine whether authorised pitches were, or could be, made available, either there or at the other authorised site at Lullington.
The last sentence of the chief executive's letter illustrates the next problem. It reads:I anticipate the travellers will now move on and we will be able to secure the site against any further occupation.Of course, the measures taken were woefully inadequate. The bund erected was removed in short order, and much the same group of travellers was back in August. It is fortunate—perhaps we should count this as a blessing amid all the staggering incompetence—that no attempt had been made to clear the site of waste that had been generated by the first occupation. If that had happened, the public cost would have been higher still.
"Happily", as the acting chief executive perhaps ironically told me, the agency once again obtained legal authority to reoccupy the site on 13 October. It is worth noting again the extraordinary delay. The occupation was in August, but the agency did not gain legal authority to reoccupy until 13 October. There had been some intervening difficulties. As Mr. Hickey's letter mildly puts it,there was a misunderstanding in communications at one stage, which resulted in unwarranted criticisms being levelled at the Police".Perhaps I can give a rather more blunt account. The local police were asked to produce written reports, which they did in short order. They fondly imagined— 1808 although one wonders why, given their previous dealings with the Highways Agency—that the agency might be pressing ahead with some urgency. Instead, their efforts were swallowed in agency bureaucracy and then, worse still, residents were told that police delays were holding up proceedings. Optimistically, Mr. Hickey adds:However, our staff continue to enjoy excellent working relationships with the local constabulary.Whatever those relations are, they are not excellent. I shall return with another illustration of that later in this account.
I also queried waste dumping on site. Mr. Hickey agreed that this was "vexing". He pleaded that there were no witnesses. We then had the waste clearance and site security costs to face. The cost of clearing the site was estimated at about £24,000, although I do not know what the final figure was. Securing the site properly was estimated to cost nearly another £2,000. Legal fees were approaching £4,000 with, when my parliamentary question was answered, more to come.
By this time, Archie Robertson had taken over as chief executive. I am not sure whether the turnover of people at the Highways Agency has had anything to do with competence in respect of handling such matters, but one can only hope for a better performance. I queried what efforts had been made to tackle quite blatant law breaking on the site. Perhaps too politely, I pointed to what appeared to be a passive approach. I should explain that the site is in even more public view than the Willington site, as it can be readily observed from all angles, and access to it can be watched with no difficulty whatever. On the suggestion that it might be cost-effective to observe the site, he remarked:Observing the site may help to bring a prosecution, however it might not prevent the waste being dumped, nor facilitate removal of the waste afterwards. It might present the possibility of recharging the travellers for the cost of clearing the site, but I am sure you can recognise the severe difficulties involved in bringing that off successfully.Even if we could justify assigning Agency staff on a 24-hour basis—I shall return to that point in a moment—to observe a site, and I doubt that we could, I would still have concerns over the safety of my staff. After all, staff would be on their own, doing something antagonistic to the travellers, and would have to be close enough to them to take vehicle details, make detailed observations of characters and their actions etc. I would not want to put my staff into such a situation, but recognise that the Environment Agency may have appropriate surveillance capability.There are obvious points to make. Again, the law seems little understood. That on waste carriage in particular is draconian. The owner of the vehicle is prosecutable regardless of whether they knew of the vehicle's illegal use. Simple identification of vehicles and tracing of owners is all that is required to enforce that section of the law. There is also concern for the agency's staff, which overrides any concern at the agency for upholding the law.
Furthermore, no attempt—I have checked this in conversation with the local police—was made to involve the police or the enforcement authorities, which are the Environment Agency and the district council, in addressing the problem. The constant references to collaboration with statutory agencies, which pepper the 1809 letters that I receive, are entirely confined to the narrow processes of complying with Government guidelines on the welfare of travellers.
Proper collaboration for the benefit of the local community or to save taxpayers' money is singularly absent. Also, the chief executive was unaware of the 24-hour surveillance paid for in my constituency by the agency, but two years earlier. He refers to it being quite impossible to consider 24-hour surveillance, although there is no evidence that it need take place for as long as that. As I have demonstrated, however, it was paid for in another location about 4 miles away.
Once again, after those costly events, the site was sold. The new owner—the former owner—will, I am certain, manage it effectively and ensure that these events become an unpleasant memory. Continued agency ownership, on its track record, would be a recipe for further cost and harm. Let me be clear about the simple steps that the agency must take and should have taken previously. First, it should review its surplus land immediately on completion of a road and transfer that land to proper ownership as a matter of urgency. In both sites, road construction had long passed by.
Secondly, in sites the agency must retain or where it cannot rapidly transfer ownership, it should appraise risk of occupation and take appropriate defensive measures.
Thirdly, should those defences be breached, it should co-operate with other agencies in enforcing the law, not merely in protecting the rights of illegal campers.
Fourthly, the agency should ensure that its operatives and agents have at least a basic knowledge of the law so that they may act as witnesses to any offences.
Fifthly, it should review its legal processes, uncover why it is renowned for sloth and increase its speed, because delay means cost.
Finally, it should not regard law breaking as a vexing problem to be swamped with taxpayers' money, but should instead recognise a responsibility to help to uphold the law and protect public resources.
Agency complacency, passivity and ignorance have cost more than £70,000 in this small area on just two sites. I dread to think how much of our money is hosed at this problem nationwide. New strategies, tactics and attitudes are required. I look forward to the Minister's response.
§ 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.
It is with regret that I must apologise to my hon. Friend and his constituents for what I believe are 1810 inadequacies in the Highways Agency's handling of this matter. It is apparent from my investigations that the agency could have handled it very much better than it did.
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.
1811 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 1812 barriers to prevent re-entry. My hon. Friend and his constituents must have wondered why that was not done after the first occupation, or even why the barriers were not there before it. I shall certainly take that up with the agency.
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. Jamieson
My hon. Friend is almost certainly right.
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 1813 waste dumping. There are some simple lessons that it could easily learn and adopt, thereby improving its practice.
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 future—under the leadership of the new chief executive, Archie Robinson, in whom I have enormous confidenc—the 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.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Six o'clock.