FENLAND District Council admitted today it fears a Dale Farm type reaction if it tries to remove travellers who have illegally occupied and expanded a 10-acre site near Wisbech.

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Fenland District Council’s statement in full

“WE have great sympathy with local residents and fully understand their frustration about the length of time that this problem is taking to resolve.

“However, the fact is that the legal process involved in issues like this is complex and time-consuming. We have to make absolutely sure that any action we take is watertight and not open to legal challenge.

“The time allowed by the Planning Inspectorate for the occupants of the site to fully comply with its ruling ran out on January 23.

“Since then we have been working on preparing a detailed report on all the options that are open to us. We have been taking expert legal advice to ensure that any action we might take would survive a legal challenge that could prove very costly for the council.

“In preparing the report we have to take into account what has happened elsewhere in similar circumstances, notably at Dale Farm in Basildon, Essex. That suggests that if we had sought to take direct action before now, the occupants of the site might well have been able to obtain a court injunction against us.

“Once we are fully satisfied on the legal situation, the report will have to be considered initially by the Planning Committee. Its choice of action will determine our next steps.

“We have been doing our utmost to push this through as quickly as possible and we will continue to do that. But it is by no means as straightforward as it might seem.”

The council said if it takes direct action against the travellers at Redmoor Lane, Elm, it could face court injunctions similar to that facing authorities trying to remove even larger numbers from the illegal Dale Farm camp in Essex.

“We have to make absolutely sure that any action we take is watertight and not open to legal challenge,” a council spokesman admitted. “It is by no means as straightforward as it seems.”

A neighbour who insists on remaining nameless says those occupying the site are using “every trick in the book” to avoid being evicted.

“Not only that but they continue to add new homes to the site,” said the neighbour. “Only last week another static van went onto the site – and the council stood by and did nothing.

“It’s got to the point where even if we wanted to sell our homes no-one would want to buy them.”

Councillors will get a fresh chance to study the site following an application by one of the travellers, Elizabeth Curtis, to put seven static and seven touring caravans on part of the site.

The application comes seven months after the deadline imposed by a Government inspector for Mrs Curtis and other travellers to leave.

Diane Lewis, who conducted a public inquiry in 2009, gave them until January of this year quit the site.

Factfile

• Families illegally occupying the site say there has been no flooding there since 1997 and they have done enough ground works to prevent it.

• Government inspector Diane Lewis accepted most families living there fell within the definition of travellers or gypsies although she singled out, by name, Cindy Lee since not enough was known about her to be sure.

• Betty Curtis previously lived in a caravan in the back garden of a house in Christchurch. She told Ms Lewis she couldn’t cope with living in a “fixed abode”. She now lives on site with her daughter Elizabeth.

• One other family living at Redmoor Lane - Lucy Charlotte and her four children - argued with the inspector that previously they had travelled in East Anglia and Bedfordshire. Following a fatal accident involving her youngest child she had decided to look for a settled site. Two of her children have received treatment in Cambridge for cystic fibrosis and others for depression and back problems.

• Government lawyers accept that dismissal of the appeals has “serious consequences for the appellants, probably leading to the loss of their homes.

“This would be an interference with their rights to a home and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Nevertheless, in their circumstances, interference with their rights would be in accordance with the law, necessary in the public interest, both in terms of public safety and to protect the countryside, and proportionate.”

She dismissed a series of appeals and enforcements lodged by residents against the refusal of planning permission.

“The risk of flooding remains,” she said of the site. “The thrust of national and development plan policy is to direct a highly vulnerable form of development away from such areas.

“I conclude the site is not suitable located in terms of flood risk.”

She also said the site – south of the A47 Wisbech bypass - detracts from the open character of the Fenland landscape.

And she denied the claims that new sites were needed since she said Fenland Council anticipates 80 of the 89 pitches required to meet demand “will be found through regularising existing tolerated sites. A further three permanent pitches have been recently granted permission.

“On this basis the general need for new pitches in the short term is not as urgent as may first appear.”

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