Beggars, the urban homeless, even the tree-hugging dreamers of the new self-sufficient permaculture cannot be choosers in the society inherited and now condemned by John Major.

Brian Monger, one-time lecturer in photography and fine arts, knows this to be true. Nineteen months ago he joined a community of 16 bender tents near the village of East Pennard in Somerset's Mendip Hills. The four-acre wooded site is on land sold to the settlers by a local farmer. Like other tent communities quietly mushrooming across the West Country, its 20 inhabitants want to get under cover, on private land, before the Government's Criminal Justice Bill, with its draconian penalties against New Age travellers, becomes law later this year.

And this is, after all, Somerset, known as 'Paddy's Kingdom' because it is the power base of Paddy Ashdown, the MP for Yeovil and leader of the Liberal Democrat party. Mr Ashdown is a passionate advocate of small, well-controlled tent villages like the one near East Pennard. Unfortunately, his political colleagues who run the county council and key authorities in the area are proving less enthusiastic. Under intense pressure from conservationists and pressure groups who want to keep rural England tidy, they are cracking down on the new generation of ecologically minded settlers like Mr Monger and his open-air neighbours.

'We're a very mixed group, very rainbow originally,' Mr Monger says. 'The site was set up by traveller energy, which is where I come from. We've also got people here from London, who've never lived outside before.'

New Age buses and trucks are not allowed in the camp. The only concession to technology has been a pay phone in an old village telephone box. Mr Monger uses it to inform the media that instant 'villages' like theirs could be the answer to the Prime Minister's exhortations to 'sweep beggars off the streets'.

'We got on our bikes. Yes?' he says. 'Living here, we're taking the pressure off homelessness. We're part of the solution, no longer part of the problem. Also, we go a long way to help with poverty because we grow our own food and can live on very very little money.'

Joining the East Pennard co-operative, which has its own parliament meeting once a week, costs pounds 600 and a good-sized family bender, with windows, would be about pounds 500. 'So we don't need housing benefit and with 20 people here that's a big saving for the state,' Mr Monger says.

Unfortunately, his vision of 'a woodland garden where people can live with nature without destroying it' may be short-lived. The community has parked its tents on an officially designated area of natural beauty. Planners from Mendip's politically hung district council will decide within the next few weeks whether to order them to pack up and leave.

The augurs are not good. Across the West travellers who thought they had played a cool hand setting up communities that were quaintly Conservative with their 'back to basics' family value philosophies have found their game trumped by the landscape card.

In Norton sub Hamdon, where Paddy Ashdown has a cottage, another group of tent settlers is facing eviction for flouting planning laws after paying pounds 50,000 for a 40-acre site of woodland and apple orchards at Tinkers Bottom, a beauty spot near Ham Hill county park. The local planning authority, South Somerset District Council, is Liberal Democrat controlled. A heated campaign against the camp has been led by Andy Jacobs, Liberal Democrat district councillor for the area, despite pleas for tolerance from Mr Ashdown, a close neighbour and godfather to the councillor's daughter. Mr Jacobs has argued that the group will frighten the deer in its woodland camp, cause traffic congestion and damage the local tourist trade.

Villagers have, meanwhile, posted 'wanted' notices directed at the camp's inhabitants and banned them from the local pub. Objections have included a perceived fear of the 'cult status' of the Tinkers Bottom community leader, Simon Fairlie, the mild-mannered co-editor of the Dorset-based Ecologist magazine. 'Given that Ashdown and Andy Jacobs are buddies, they appear to be having it both ways,' he says. 'On a national level they're looking fairly liberal while on a local level they're looking very conservative.'

Twelve miles to the west, at the village of Buckland St Mary, a group of five families, parked up with their buses and caravans in a county council road-chipping store, have been refused permission by South Somerset planners to settle there permanently. The site, Folly Lane, hidden deep inside Dommett Wood, is a mile and a half from the village. Planning consent was refused because the layby is inside the Blackdown Hills area of outstanding natural beauty. The wood itself is run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. The trust has complained that a long-term study of plant regeneration in the wood after severe storm damage has been spoiled because the settlers have been collecting the dead wood for their camp fires.

Peter Walker, the group's leader, who settled there eight months ago with his wife, Branka, and daughters aged two and five, says gypsies have been allowed to use the site as a stop-over for 120 years. 'We've been monitoring the radio since John Major's speech and it sounds like Europe in the Thirties,' he said. 'All we want to do is legitimise our position and lead a quiet life. Paddy Ashdown's been here for a chat and he's agreed with us. Big gypsy sites cost anything up to half a million and we could accommodate five families here, with a toilet and water tap, for pounds 5,000 - and we'd pay rent to the council.

'A very nice woman from the council came here with a wodge of forms for each family to fill in so we could get on the housing list. I turned round and said, 'I don't want to get on a housing list. I already own my home.'

'They've given us 10 months to find somewhere else to live and if we don't we've got a problem. The Criminal Justice Bill is going to cost us, and the state, an awful lot of money. We'll have to pay if they impound and crush our vehicles. The kids will be taken into care and there could be a fine or imprisonment.'

Negotiations with Buckland parish council, particularly its chairman, Del Wiggins, a schoolteacher in Taunton, had been very civilised, Mr Walker says. But other villagers have been less friendly. One of them cut off a village tap, the settlers' only source of water. Another issued a yellow poster that said: 'Something smells in Folly Lane. Paddy Ashdown and his mafia are trying to land us with the unwashed hoards.' A few days ago Mr Walker was banned from the local pub, The Eagle, while discussing his problems with two local councillors.

Mrs Wiggins deplores such activities. 'My whole life as a teacher for 30 years has been directed at making caring relationships with people,' she said. 'Mr Walker and his friends are reasonable, articulate and moderate people, though that didn't mean people agreed with them or wanted them to live here. I must emphasise that the group in Folly Lane before them was very different. There were sheep worrying instances and there are two elderly ladies in the village who no longer walk down that lane because they're afraid.

'That said, this problem - and it's awful calling people a problem - isn't going to go away. The new laws don't mean that New Age travellers will disappear. Something has to be done and high-sounding words won't do.'

John Miller, Liberal Democrat leader of South Somerset District Council, agrees. Councillors in the county are setting up a committee to assess the problem and see if sites can be found for 'resident' travellers. Mr Miller, who admits this will be 'difficult', says that planning applications are being turned down because they breach rigid environment laws in sensitive areas.

'There's no conflict between Paddy as party leader and those of us who believe something must be done,' he says. 'We all agree that the Criminal Justice Bill will be both ineffective and costly; ineffective because it's based on the assumption that if you keep moving these people on they will get fed up and give up; and costly because of the money that will be spent trying to enforce it.'