Police and council detail steps taken at Earlswood Common encampment

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Twitter users last week criticised the speed of Surrey Police’s response to travellers who recently camped on Earlswood Common, but the police have said that they have limits on how and when they use their powers.

A school sports day had to be postponed as a result of the unauthorised encampment, which lasted nearly a week.

Both the police and the council did visit the site, and both served legal notices under their different legal powers, before the travellers left on Thursday 13 June.

Questions were also raised by residents about the length of time Reigate & Banstead Borough Council took to serve its notice, and the council has given details of the process it followed.

The incident began when travellers arrived near the cricket pitches at the Ring on the Friday evening, 7 June.

The council visited the site over that weekend to carry out legally-required welfare checks, and informally asked the travellers to leave on Sunday 9 June.

The next working day, Monday, the council drew up a “section 77” eviction notice, and served it the following day, Tuesday 12 June.  As that notice wasn’t complied with, the council started court proceedings.

In the meantime, police officers had also visited the camp over the weekend, working with the council.

Only when reports of three dog bites were received on Wednesday 12 June did the police feel able to prove that the encampment was having a sufficiently large impact, in accordance with Government guidance, and they then served a “section 61” notice.  The travellers left the following day, Thursday 13 June.

A police spokesperson said on Tuesday this week:

“Surrey Police authorised the use of powers under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 on an unauthorised encampment at Earlswood Common which was served on Wednesday (12 June) directing the group to leave, which they did the following day.

We were made aware of the unauthorised encampment on 7 June and worked with Reigate and Banstead Borough Council who were initially the lead agency, to monitor the impact of the camp. In this case, RBBC requested that the trespassers moved on 9 June.

Use of Section 61 requires us to balance the impact of the camp with the rights of the individual, and the guidance expects us to prove that the camp is having a substantial and significant impact, before we were able to use the powers within the Act.

Following reports of three dog bites at the site on June 12, which remain under investigation, this was proven and the Section 61 authorised.”

The police also later posted a link to their webpage about unauthorised encampments, which includes information about arrest powers for criminal offences, a topic that residents sometimes raise regarding any reports of criminal damage. The page states:

“If we receive reports of criminal offences, these are treated in exactly the same way as any other report.   If there is sufficient evidence to identify those responsible, we will pursue them through the criminal justice system.

We are often asked why we don’t arrest all of the people on an unauthorised encampment as it must be one of them who committed the damage.   This would be unlawful and police would investigate the report of the damage.”

On  Reigate & Banstead Borough Council’s role in the incident, Ben Murray, senior manager for regulatory services, said this week:

“The council works extremely hard to address illegal encampments as swiftly as possible when they arise and has effective processes in place to deal with them.

The illegal encampment at The Ring, Earlswood arrived at the site late on Friday evening (7 June).  Our Joint Enforcement Team (JET) carried out a site visit and the (legally) required welfare checks over the weekend.

The relevant legal paperwork for a Section 77 Notice of Direction to Leave was prepared on Monday (as the first business day) and was served by JET officers on the occupants as soon as practicable on Tuesday morning (11 June).

As the notice wasn’t complied with within a reasonable timescale, we started the legal process to obtain a court order to remove the encampment on Tuesday afternoon, the timescale for which is largely down to the court.

We liaised with Surrey Police throughout, as is usual, who were able to use their powers on this occasion to move the encampment on.

The council is also looking at options to better secure its land from illegal encampment.”

In terms of more permanent solutions to the problems, the police webpage mentions the lack of transit sites, which are places where travellers can stay, for a charge.

Many counties have transit sites, but Surrey has none.

After a spate of unauthorised encampments last summer, Surrey’s then chief constable, Nick Ephgrave, wrote in an open letter:

“If a designated transit site is available, the police are enabled to direct encampments to move immediately to the transit site, with far fewer criteria necessary to act.

If those on the encampment refuse, or return to camp unlawfully elsewhere within three months they are liable to immediate arrest.

Currently, Surrey has no transit sites and so none of these powers are available.”

Given Surrey Police’s pleas for transit sites, reigate.uk asked Reigate & Banstead Borough Council about there not being one in the recent Development Management Plan drawn up by the borough.

Andrew Benson, head of planning at the council, said:

“Reigate & Banstead Borough Council is working with the other councils across Surrey on the matter of a transit site within the county. Discussions are ongoing.

A transit site was not allocated in the Development Management Plan because, whilst there is an identified need for such a site within Surrey, there was no evidence to suggest that this need would be best met by provision of a site within this Borough.

We appreciate there is an urgency about this and further talks are planned with council leaders in Surrey and Surrey Police to identify one or more suitable locations. We need to be realistic that it is unlikely a site will be available this summer as it would need planning consent, but the issue is being treated as a priority.”

The borough’s development management plan does look at other provision for travellers, such as imposing a requirement for small pitches on larger developments.  Mr Benson said:

“We are planning for the borough’s future needs to house legitimate gypsies, travellers and travelling showpeople by supporting appropriate planning applications and making provision for new pitches in our Development Management Plan, an approach supported by the planning inspector who examined the plan last autumn.”