Planners aim to oust pioneer settlers from 50,000 pounds 'village': Paddy Ashdown has been drawn into a battle over land in his own backyard. Peter Dunn reports

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SETTLERS who have pitched tents at Tinkers' Bubble, a beauty spot they own near Paddy Ashdown's home in the ham- stone village of Norton-sub- Hamdon in Somerset, are proving to be something of a political embarrassment in the Liberal Democrat leader's own backyard.

Mr Ashdown, who lives in a mid-terrace thatched cottage in Norton, thinks they should be allowed to stay. Fellow Liberal Democrats, who run South Somerset District Council, think the incomers are spoiling the view.

Today planners are expected to refuse a pioneering application from the tent people to keep up to 10 tents on the site for three years. They are also expected to ask John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, to issue an Article 4 directive against the settlers, effectively removing their legal right to camp on their land for 28 days a year.

In doing so they will be ignoring a letter from Mr Ashdown telling them: 'This would not be a very free country if we were not able to enjoy a freedom of lifestyle within our private property. All sorts of different lifestyles offend other citizens. But freedom means that you are allowed to live in your own way, provided this does not infringe on others.'

The homeless travellers paid pounds 50,000 for their 40-acre site of pine forest and apple orchards six months ago and decided to settle down to work the land. Tinkers' Bubble is close to Ham Hill country park. Hidden from the outside world on pine tree slopes the newcomers have pitched half a dozen tepees and bender tents. There are bee hives and newly-dug vegetable seed beds on a sunny slope.

A disparate group of green journalists, computer professionals, young drifters and 'dongas', including veterans of the M3 battle at Twyford Down in Hampshire, they have set up the Tinkers' Bubble Trust to finance and manage their property under a strict social and environmental code. New Age convoy vehicles are banned from the site; so are noisy people, including a potential trustee who wanted to build a log cabin using a chain saw.

Simon Fairlie, a trustee and co- editor of The Ecologist magazine, which is based at Sturminster Newton in Dorset, says the group is following advice from the Government to survive new anti-travellers' legislation by buying its own land and applying for permission to settle down. The trust originally wanted permission for 20 tents. It halved the application in response to local protesters.

Ham-stone villagers, some of them living nearby in pounds 700,000 properties, are not impressed. Some are worried about house prices falling; others do not want tent people's children attending the village school. Members of the unwanted community have already been banned from Norton's local pub, the Lord Nelson.

'Wanted' notices, warning locals that Tinkers' Bubble might become a re-run of the campaign against an official gypsy site at Middlezoy, Somerset, have been posted in the village. 'The sooner we get rid of them the better,' the Lord Nelson's publican, Mike Hill, says. 'Some of their women were sneaking in the back door using the pub's loos. If they want to live like pigs they can, but don't use my facilities.'

According to Andy Jacobs, the area's Liberal Democrat district councillor, the tent village would endanger deer living in the trust's woodlands, cause traffic congestion on narrow lanes, pose a risk of bush infernos from open cooking fires and threaten the county's pounds 30m a year tourist trade by intruding on a country park.

In a letter to villagers at Buckland St Mary, 12 miles west of Norton-sub-Hamdon, Mr Ashdown defended an application to legalise a similar community of travellers set up in Dommett Wood 10 years ago, dismissing fears that the area would be 'flooded with travellers'.

'In fact the reverse is the truth,' he wrote. 'If permission is granted the site can be regularised and become subject to planning law . . . The travellers there are as aware of this as we are and are determined to ensure that the site conforms to planning regulations.'

South Somerset District Council planners have refused permission for the Dommett Wood commune and given its members until next March to leave.

Closer to home, the Liberal Democrats' leader has been compelled to take account of local pressure. Simon Fairlie wrote to Mr Ashdown voicing his amazement at the 'virulent opposition' to the tent village and deploring the 'Wanted' posters.

Mr Ashdown's reply supported the broad aims of the Tinkers' Bubble Trust, but expressed sympathy with councillors who had opposed it 'with a heavy heart' on environmental grounds.

He described the posters as 'offensive' but said the people who put them up were 'dealing with difficult issues and sometimes express themselves very inappropriately. This is not an excuse for such behaviour but it might provide an explanation why some people are moved to it.'

Mr Fairlie is not happy with the reply and plans to meet the Yeovil MP to discuss the broader issues involved. 'We aren't going to spend pounds 50,000 on a piece of land and then just give it up,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)