Prescott gives councils new powers to curb travellers

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Aggrieved villagers who have had their rural idyll ruined by an invasion of travellers in caravans will be offered some prospect of relief to their torment by John Prescott's office today.

Aggrieved villagers who have had their rural idyll ruined by an invasion of travellers in caravans will be offered some prospect of relief to their torment by John Prescott's office today.

Officials in the Deputy Prime Minister's office have told a Commons select committee that councils are to be given new powers by the end of the year to order an immediate stop to development by travellers on farm fields, even where they own the land.

Residents in the picture-postcard village of High Ham (population about 300) last week became the latest target for an invasion by travellers from Ireland, who bought a field, and arrived with 29 mobile homes.

They were told that there was little the local authority - South Somerset district council - could do because the travellers owned the land, pending a lengthy planning process. The villagers were told the travellers were not trespassing, and police could only intervene if the travellers committed an offence.

Residents in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, and Eckington, Worcestershire, are also angry at the failure of the authorities to evict travellers, who have bought the land in their areas and established caravan sites without proper planning permission.

The Commons select committee for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will publish evidence today confirming new powers, to be enacted before the end of the year, which will allow councils to issue temporary "stop notices".

Councils will be able to tell travellers that they cannot place their caravans on hard standings or make other developments that would damage the land, pending a planning inquiry. Mr Prescott's office is also to launch a consultation exercise this summer on the problem.

The new powers are regarded as a temporary fix by ministers, pending the wider review. They will not be retrospective, and do not make it easier to evict travellers. The only respite they offer is to stop the encampments from growing.

A Government review has found that there are too few appropriate sites identified for travellers or gypsies. Ministers blame the previous Conservative government which lifted the responsibility on councils to provide sites for travellers.

The review has also found that the enforcement process to stop developments on inappropriate sites is too slow. "What we want to do is reform the system in a way that is fair to both the travellers and the settled communities," a ministerial source said.

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