Facilities managers must move quickly when travellers set up camp on their organisation's property, says Richard Cressall.
2 July 2015 | By Richard Cressall
Landowners can often fall victim to travellers occupying their land as they find places to stay across the country.
But what does this mean for facilities managers or landowners trying to keep control of property and land, particularly schools, parks, retail schemes and industrial estates?
What options are available for evicting the travellers and how can their trespassing be prevented?
Recently a number of travellers, uninvited, pitched up their vehicles and caravans on a car park at Woodhouse Grove School, a £25,000-a-year boarding school in Apperley Bridge, near Bradford, West Yorkshire.
Although some might sympathise with the traveller community, these encampments do leave those responsible for the management of land in difficulty.
A similar incident took place at the school last year during a local horse fair event. Although students of the school no doubt enjoyed the newfound temporary diversity of the boarding community, the school's management said it had been forced to take legal action to evict the travellers, having made unsuccessful attempts to ask them to leave.
Know the law
Unfortunately for all land managers, travellers know the system well, as they come across it almost every day of their lives, as a necessary by-product of their sporadic need to camp on land that they may not own.
Despite what a traveller might say, our experience shows that most of the time they will not move on until they are forced to do so. Squatting in residential property may in certain circumstances be a criminal offence, but this does not apply to most commercial sites. In any event the police often prefer not to get involved with any kind of trespasser, including travellers.
Illegal traveller encampments are a common problem for property managers and owners, who obviously wish to avoid the costs of court action while at the same time wanting to clear the site as quickly as possible. They need not despair.
There are a number of options available to them in such circumstances, including court proceedings (which usually can be turned around within a week or two).
Many opt for the less expensive option of instructing agents to use 'reasonable force' to evict travellers, although this approach is not without risks, including potential criminal liability if agents go beyond the rather ambiguous line of using 'reasonable force' in their attempts to evict the travellers.
If a manager is on site, then it is always sensible to supervise or oversee agents at work, although it is not advisable for the manager to become personally involved in the eviction process. As well as attracting criminal liability, the use of force to evict travellers can lead to bad publicity for site managers and land owners; one only has to recall the violent clashes in Essex during the notorious Dale Farm evictions of 2011. At its height, Dale Farm, along with the adjacent Oak Lane site, housed more than 1,000 people, the largest traveller concentration in the UK. A clearance order was executed there after 10 years of legal contention.
Landowners and property managers should take heed of Woodhouse Grove's recent experience. It's important to move quickly, communicating with the travellers, but without necessarily being able to rely on them leaving when they say they will.
Securing your land
Landowners should take legal advice from a team that has experience of dealing with travellers and which has the necessary contacts with the courts and the enforcement agents to enable landowners to evict the travellers as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
Finally, it is a golden rule that all site managers should try to secure their land wherever possible.
The cost of a gate, a good-quality lock or a robust fence can be far cheaper than finding yourself regularly on the receiving end of traveller occupation.
Security is often the responsibility of the on-site manager and consideration should be given to what is most appropriate for the site. It is a good idea to inspect boundaries to anticipate where travellers will look to force entry.
Most travellers come equipped with fence and wire cutters; basic padlocks also do not present much of a problem for them. Physical obstacles such as boulders are often effective deterrents, as are rivets to prevent access by vehicles and/or horses.
On-site security guards are also often appropriate for larger sites, such as industrial properties.
Unfortunately this is a problem that is here to stay for the foreseeable future and everybody with responsibility for property should endeavour to protect it.
One day we may have legislation to assist landowners and managers by increasing the potential sanctions for travellers and speeding up the eviction process, but at the moment Parliament appears to have other things on its agenda.
Richard Cressall is property disputes solicitor at law firm Gordons