There are few local authorities in the country that haven't experienced the enormous difficulties inherent in people setting up camp illegally in local parks and green spaces with their mobile homes and caravans, horses and dogs then leaving the area (voluntarily or otherwise) and landing the authority with an expensive bill for cleaning up.
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase not only in the burden of having to clear up the personal, domestic and industrial scale waste caused by such incursions but also the consequences of removing domestic and business waste illegally dumped in parks and green spaces.
There is a consequential negative effect on relations between councils, their tax payers, the police and the whole community.
The approach until now has been reactive with local authorities reacting to the incursions by obtaining High Court Writs of Possession or using Common Law powers which are high risk, confrontational and often volatile. The High Court has recognised the extent of the problem and accepted that going through the County Courts simply permits the occupants to stay on the land while the legal process runs its course. IPO’s are slow, cumbersome and ineffective as the Police do not have the resources to enforce them within the requisite time. The local authorities are then left to clear up the waste and bringing the green space back to public use. Quite apart from the cost associated with such legal action, the problem is that moving people on simply moves the problem to another green space, often literally round the corner and the local authority then has to seek another possession order.
Now, however, councils have the option of taking a proactive stance. Harlow DC and the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham as well as Enfield have recently managed to obtain preventative injunctions which forbid “persons unknown” from accessing parks and sports fields to make an encampment, thereby making any incursion on any of the green spaces named in the injunction a contempt of court. The advantages of this scheme are that those seeking to occupy green spaces illegally:
- Cannot simply move to the next green space within that local authority area.
- Are faced with a substantial deterrent in the form of fines, seizure of assets and imprisonment.
- The protracted and expensive injunction procedure for each incursion is replaced with the swifter and more draconian contempt procedure.
It is the deterrent element of such action by councils which could prove the most effective weapon in the fight against this form of anti-social behaviour, thereby cutting the cost and time local authorities spend in dealing with a problem that, at the moment, is on the increase.
Steven Woolf of Hardwicke who was an integral part of the latest application before the High Court on behalf of the London Borough of Enfield says that:
"at present this is the only way that local authorities can address the problem positively. The injunction is intended to pre-empt the creation of a camp so as to protect green spaces. In addition it is hoped being seen as strong in the face of infiltration by unknown persons will mean that councils are seen as addressing the problem effectively and protecting the green spaces that are intended to provide the leisure, pleasure and recreational activities for the community. This will enhance good community relations."
Steven doesn't go so far as to suggest that the problem will simply disappear, but does feel that:
"this is a different approach that won't have seen before. It seeks to discourage people intending on occupying parks and green spaces from coming into the borough in the first place. Having an all encompassing injunction makes that borough an unattractive option to set up an encampment. No sooner do they arrive than they are in contempt of court and liable to imprisonment or the seizure of assets."
Although all borough/council wide injunctions against persons unknown can be difficult to obtain due to their widespread nature, Steven explains the prospects of a successful application is in the preparation:
"I spent three days at the offices of the Council, meeting with officers from the Property and the Environment Departments as well as closely working with the Legal Team, and High Court enforcement specialist Jonathan Chatfield from the Burlington Group in order to ensure the evidence was as comprehensive and as accurate as it possibly could be." He says "the evidence needs to get to a position where a court cannot in all good consciousness say No."
Time will tell how successful the green spaces injunction will be. If other authorities are prepared to undertake a similar process to that of Enfield, Harlow DC and Barking & Dagenham, then this concerted action may dramatically reduce a country-wide problem.