Wider ramifications of this summer's traveller troubles
- Credit: Bob Cartwright
Over the summer, Exmouth residents and businesses have suffered distress and financial loss from the behaviour of one or more traveller groups.
Brixington Park serves many residents living in the ward I represent. It was broken into and occupied illegally twice in a three-week period. With the park being both popular and on the boundary of many back gardens, the episode caused a great deal of fear and distress to the local community. I would rather spare readers the unpleasant details.
However, in the wake of the occupations, there have been many positive suggestions made to me to secure Brixington Park. These I urgently referred to the council cabinet member with responsibility for our parks and open spaces. I am delighted to report that the council are acting swiftly. They have agreed to pay for a new, heavy duty steel gate to replace the old wooden one. Access will also be restricted from Parsons Close. These works will be completed over the coming weeks.
As many wise residents have pointed out to me, prevention is always better than the cure. In the long run, it is far cheaper to secure sites such as Brixington Park than use thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money to pay enforcement officers to evict them - which is what we’re doing every time there is an illegal encampment.
While Brixington Park should be safe from future illegal encampments, other areas remain vulnerable, including Phear Park and the Imperial Recreation Ground. We don’t want to simply be moving problems to other open spaces in Exmouth which are inappropriate for travellers to occupy.
Phear Park and the Imperial Rec are far more difficult sites to secure than Brixington Park. The current process to evict travellers from sites they have trespassed onto is slow and expensive. The people who suffer and pay the ultimate price are the local taxpayers, you and I.
I welcome plans to make these illegal occupations a criminal rather than a civil offence, to end the cat-and-mouse games between certain badly-behaved traveller groups and East Devon District Council.
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As distressing as the situation was over the summer, demonising travelling communities is the wrong answer and will only increase problems. The terrible behaviour of the group of travellers in Exmouth should not mean well-behaved traveller communities who integrate with the wider community should be tarred with the same brush.
The new administration at East Devon District Council has established a Gypsies and Traveller Forum which seeks to act as a conduit between traveller groups and the settled community.
Unlike the rest of the country, the number of unauthorised encampments in the district has sadly increased over recent years. A loss of transit sites and stopping places elsewhere in the South West region and a sharp increase in the number of ‘homeless’ travellers are the two reasons why.
The sharp increase in homeless travellers is largely due to the increasing number of homeless people across the country as a whole who have moved into vehicles rather than live on the streets. The council has historically had very limited interaction with these homeless people for whom living in vehicles is seen as a last resort. The new council administration I am proud to be part of is changing that, because we recognise that these people genuinely have nowhere else to go. Some Conservative councillors occasionally fail to grasp this.
But if we're truly going to get a handle on this problem longer-term, the government must incentivise councils to build more homes that are truly affordable. In doing this we must also protect our countryside from over-development.
To my mind, there is only one way to achieve these seemingly conflicting goals and that is to clamp down further on empty homes and taxing multiple homeownership to a greater degree than we are now. Being provided with a home should be human right in any decent civilised society. The rapid rise in homelessness should shame our nation.