Behind the proposals, outlined in a consultation paper yesterday, lies a determined effort by ministers to end the gypsy way of life, encouraging them to settle in houses.
Sir George Young, the minister for housing and planning, said the policy followed by successive governments since the introduction of the Caravan Sites Act 24 years ago, had failed.
The main proposals are: a new criminal offence of parking a caravan on any land without the landowner's consent; new powers for local authorities to tow away illegally-parked caravans once a warrant has been obtained from magistrates; new powers to prevent offenders from returning to the same site within two years; and powers for magistrates' courts to seize caravans as an alternative to fines for illegal caravan parking.
The changes are not directed at New Age travellers, or hippies, who converge on illegal sites in large numbers. They are being tackled in separate action under the public order Acts by the Home Office. But they could be caught by the proposed legislation as it would amend the 1968 Act to change the definition of gypsies to mean any travellers.
It would abolish the legal requirement on local authorities to provide gypsy sites. One hundred per cent grants to local authorities for the provision of sites would be withdrawn.
Local authorities expressed alarm at the prosposals. The Labour-controlled Association of Metropolitan Authorities said the burden of housing those who wished to settle voluntarily, or those who had their caravans confiscated under the new law, would place an even greater strain on housing system already overstretched. A spokeswoman said that no extra funding was proposed to meet the new obligations.
The Government is prepared for an outcry from travellers but ministers believe the policy will be popular with the voters. They privately said that they had two choices: either to pump millions of pounds more into the failed policy, or to change it.
Defending the policy U-turn, Sir George said: 'This policy has failed. It has become an open- ended commitment to provide sites which leads to unacceptable claims on the taxpayer.
'The public objects to the unlawful occupation of land. Land owners are frustrated when gypsies are evicted and return to camp nearby. It undermines the gypsies' responsibility to provide for themselves and encourages others to adopt a lifestyle as a dependency culture. There is no reason why the taxpayer should subsidise that lifestyle.'
He pointed out that there were now 9,000 official pitches, but that still left 4,500 families camped illegally. Over the years, since the introduction of the Act, the number of caravans had grown from 3,400 to 13,500.
But Sir George denied that gypsies were being driven off the road, even though he said he wanted more to enter permanent accommodation. The consultation document says they would be encouraged to leave their camping existence.
They would be expected to buy land and seek planning permission to create private sites. But the Department of the Environment's consultation document shows that getting planning permission will be difficult. Only 38 per cent of councils in England have fulfilled their legal duty to designate gypsy sites in spite of a 100 per cent grant from the Government to pay for the capital costs.
A total of pounds 56m has been spent on gypsy sites since the Labour legislation. Councils will be free to abolish their existing sites, but they will have to house any families made homeless and repay their grants to the DoE.