Of course it’s a sign of a free society and healthy democracy that protests and demonstrations can take place. But for local authorities they can cause a major headache – hampering the progress of projects, adding significant costs to schemes with already stretched budgets and raising the risk of serious reputational damage if they are not handled properly.
We all remember Swampy’s protest over the new A30 at Fairmile in 1997, as well as the Newbury Bypass demonstration a couple of years earlier, on top of dozens of others.
When protestors occupied a patch of allotments in north Bristol in 2015, demonstrating against the felling of several trees to make way for a new bus route, the news made widespread headlines.
So what do councils need to know when considering how to mitigate and deal with the risk of demonstrations?
The legal basis for evictions
Government guidelines state that local authorities looking to remove trespassers from their land need to obtain a Court Order to do so and, while Common Law rights do exist, we would suggest that following the official advice is advisable.
Local authorities certainly need to ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 is being fully complied with as regards impact assessments, checking child and medical welfare, and so on.
Communication is key, so local authorities should talk to trespassers to see if a leaving date can be agreed. If you are not willing to tolerate the encampment any longer, you or your solicitor can go to a County Court and obtain an Order granting you possession of your land.
The amount of time taken to remove the occupiers will depend upon the circumstances of each individual case. The local authority will need to take account of the issues outlined by the Human Rights Act and of course the availability of hearing dates at the Court.
Occasionally, gypsies and travellers may develop permanent sites without planning permission on land they have bought.
This is not an offence in itself but it is preferable if they contact the planning authorities beforehand to see whether proposals are acceptable in land use planning terms. Enforcement action may be considered if the proposals set an unwanted precedent.
The occupation will usually be followed by retrospective planning application which, if refused, may take many court hearings to resolve.
A successful operation… and what not to do
Apart from one intervention by a council employee which was against our advice and beyond our control, our work with Bristol City Council, removing protesters from allotments on the proposed location of the new rapid bus route, was an exemplary project completed with minimal trouble to any of the parties involved.
By contrast, if you look at what happened at Dale Farm in Essex in 2011 at the so-called “Battle of Basildon”, it goes without saying that in my opinion that’s an example of how not to do it.
With those two projects in mind, here’s a list of dos and don’ts when local authorities are considering how to remove trespassers from their sites.
- Do plan your eviction rigorously. Know what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. Proper planning prevents poor performance.
- Don’t go for the cheap option. If jobs are worth doing, they are worth doing properly and the cost of a few extra well-qualified enforcement officers is minor in comparison to the reputational damage you may suffer by cutting corners.
- Do communicate with your protesters or trespassers. Exhaust every verbal avenue before sending enforcement officers in. Treat them with decency and respect and it will pave the way for a smooth removal later.
- Don’t get heavy handed. Most protestors want to behave peacefully and you may like to provide a medical officer and even a hot drink when they are removed, to help keep the peace.
- Don’t make the timing of a planned eviction widely known. Keep timing to a select few, even within your organisation, as details often find their way into the hands of protestors, their supporters and the media via leaks, causing your authority further trouble.
- Don’t negotiate on departure dates. Having extolled the virtues of communication, I should say that our operation in Bristol was compromised by a council employee who tried to make a bargain with the protestors, giving them extra time on the condition that they would leave on an agreed date. They went back on their promise and it caused us further difficulty.
- Do make sure that your enforcement company is well trained and qualified. Firms should have Chartered Institute of Credit Management qualifications and also an insurance bond to cover them, and you, against any claims made.
Many industries are modernising with 21st Century technology and standards of business culture, and ours is no difference. Gone are the days of heavy-handed thugs in leather jackets managing evictions. In an increasingly litigious society there is no benefit in this type of behaviour.
Evicting travellers from your land can be a complex procedure if not dealt with properly. Using an enforcement agency to assist with the traveller eviction means your land is repossessed quickly and legally.
Steve Wood is managing director of Able Investigations and Enforcements
This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Please click here to register for free for your own copy.
Photo: Bristol Post