Unauthorised encampments

What is an unauthorised encampment?

Unauthorised encampment is defined as " a group of people with vehicles on land without the landowner or occupier's consent with the intention of residing". Unauthorised camping is not a criminal offence. It is a civil offence (trespass), giving landowners the right to repossess their property using the due process of law.

Gypsies and Travellers are protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, together with all ethnic groups who have a particular culture, language or values. We follow advice and guidance from the Government as well as fulfilling our statutory duties in relation to any action we take to deal with unauthorised encampment.

We are aware of the distress, annoyance and expense that can be caused by unauthorised encampments.

Encampment on council land

When an unauthorised encampment on land owned or occupied by the council has been reported, we visit the site to obtain details and undertake welfare checks. This visit usually takes place within one working day. Following the visit, a formal notice (a Direction to Leave) may be served on the encampment - it usually takes a day to draw up this notice and serve it.

The direction to leave gives the encampment 24 hours to leave the site. If a group fails to move on then the next step is to obtain a court order. We will make an appointment with the magistrates’ court and a summons will be served on the group. It can be several days until the court hearing.

If the encampment has not moved on by the court date then an order will be sought from the court. Failure to comply with the order can result in vehicles being removed. Usually an encampment will have departed before proceedings get to this point, which is normally between seven to ten days.

The matter can be complicated as the court order only applies to a specific group, if a second group joins the first group, they are not covered by the original court order and we have to start the process again.

Our officers monitor the encampment from the time that it arrives until the point it leaves. If the site will require cleaning after the group leaves and we aim to do this as quickly as possible.

Encampments on council land have to be dealt with as a civil matter. The police will only take action if serious criminal activity, public disorder or disruption to the local community takes place.

Encampment on privately owned land

Where an encampment occurs on privately owned land and is unauthorised then it is normally the responsibility of the landowner to pursue enforcement action.

There are a number of measures landowners can take to prevent unauthorised encampments and to make land less inviting (including ditching, fencing, obstacles, etc). However  planning regulations and environmental issues must be considered before implementing these measures, which must affect only the land owned, and not that of neighbours or the highway.

If a private landowner decides to tolerate or permit an encampment then they should first seek advice to ensure they do not contravene planning or other legislation.

Encampment on the highway

Where an encampment occurs on the highway (the road, lay-by's, verges, the pavement) this becomes the responsibility of the highway authority, in this area this is Surrey County Council. They will follow the same procedures as us, above.

Removal of waste

Local authorities are under an obligation to remove fly tipped waste from public land. On private land it is the responsibility of the landowner to remove the waste and dispose of it legally. This can involve engaging private contractors and can be expensive. We can advise what options are available locally but we are also obliged in certain circumstances to use powers to require landowners to remove waste.

Questions and answers

This is a selection of commonly asked questions around unauthorised encampment:

Does the council have a duty to move unauthorised encampments when they are camped without the landowner's permission?

If unauthorised occupiers are camped on council land, we can evict them.

If they are on private land, it is usually the landowner's responsibility. If a landowner allows an encampment which is in breach of any planning or licensing requirements, then we can take proceedings against the landowner to require the removal of the encampment.

Can the council remove unauthorised occupiers from council land immediately?

There are statutory duties we have to undertake, which can take time (and explains why public land is often targeted).

We must:

  • Show that those occupying the land are doing so without consent
  • Make enquiries regarding the general health and welfare of the group and children's education
  • Ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 has been fully complied with
  • Follow a set procedure which involves proving ownership of the land, giving details of the  encampment, serving notices and summonses in order to successfully obtain a court order to evict the occupiers from the site

How long will it take for the unauthorised occupiers to be removed?
This will depend on the circumstances of each individual case. We need to address the statutory requirements above. It will also depend on how soon we can obtain a court hearing date and what provisions the court then specify.

We aim to start all our activity within 24 hours of notification.

Can the court refuse to grant the council an order to move occupiers on?

If the court believes we have failed to make adequate enquiries regarding their general health and welfare, they may refuse to give an order. We have to find out this information before going to court.

In some circumstances and if there is an unavoidable reason for the occupiers to stay on the site (eg a serious illness), then the court may not give an order.

If the unauthorised encampment is on private land, what can the landowner do? 
When there is an unauthorised encampment is on private land, it is usually the landowner's responsibility to take the necessary action to evict them.

The landowner can attempt to agree a leaving date with the occupiers or take proceedings under the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 to obtain a court order for their eviction.

If the land owner is absent or not based locally, what action will the council take in these circumstances?
We will attempt to contact the land owner via details held on the Land Registry and highlight their responsibilities.

If the landowner fails to take appropriate action, what will the council do?
Unless the landowner has already obtained planning permission, the landowner may be in breach of planning regulations and rules dealing with the licensing of caravan sites.

The council may take proceedings against the landowner to require removal of the unauthorised encampment.

Can the council  prosecute littering and fly tipping waste?
If we receive evidence that littering and fly tipping is occurring we can consider prosecuting the person responsible. Before we can prosecute, we need to have evidence of an offence being committed that must include details of the littering or fly tipping as well as identifying the person responsible. Even where there is clear evidence of an offence, it can take time to prepare the case, obtain a court date and serve the papers on the defendant. The person responsible may have moved out of the borough before this process can be completed. It is unusual to know where encampments have moved to once they have left the borough so serving legal documents may not be possible.

What can the police do?
The duty of the police is to preserve the peace and prevent crime. Trespass on land by itself is not a criminal offence. Prevention of trespass and the removal of trespassers are generally the responsibility of the landowner.

The police will investigate criminal and public disorder.

The police will generally visit any unauthorised encampment  to check vehicles are taxed, insured and have an MOT.

In certain circumstances the police may use powers under Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. These powers will only be used in situations of serious criminality or public disorder. It is for the police alone to decide if Section 61 is to be used.

Why do the travelling community choose to camp in this borough?
This borough has been a traditional camping area for Gypsies for hundreds of years.

Unauthorised encampments are encouraged in areas where there are employment opportunities; eg homeowners employing casual workers for building work, tree cutting, tarmac laying, waste removal, etc.