LEADERS in Oxfordshire have welcomed plans for a new law that would ban travellers from setting up camp on private land.

The legislation would make a criminal offence of ‘intentional trespass’.

Under the proposals, families living on unauthorised encampments could face time behind bars, a hefty fine or the removal of their home.

The legislation has already received cross-party approval in Oxfordshire after dozens of traveller groups set up camps on playing fields and car parks across the county in recent years, costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal bills and clean-up fees.

Residents and councillors across the county have vented their frustrating at having little power to deal with the menace.

ALSO READ: Police shut down flat for antisocial behaviour and drug dealing

The new law is being put forward to Parliament by Home Secretary Priti Patel.

If approved, it would enable police to seize vehicles and arrest those who refuse to move on at the landowner’s request.

People who breach it could face a three-month prison sentence and a fine of up to £2,500.

Travellers at Oxford Parkway.. Picture 20.07.17.

Currently, trespassing is considered a civil offence, leaving landowners – such as councils – to fight court battles if they want to remove the camps.

David Johnston, MP for Wantage and Didcot where a number of encampments were seen last summer, raised the problem on behalf of his constituents in Parliament in August last year.

Numerous sites across Oxfordshire have been left in a state of disarray by travellers over the past few years.

ALSO READ: Police urge pedigree dog owners to 'remain vigilant'

In January 2019, it was revealed that 60 illegal encampments set up across 2018 cost the local taxpayer more than £100,000 in clean-up and legal bills.

Commenting on the new legislation, he said: “I am very pleased to see these new laws will be coming forward to tackle the problem of illegal traveller camps.

“I have spoken to the Home Secretary regularly about the problems my constituents have experienced from anti-social behaviour with these camps and raised it in Parliament with other ministers.

Drone picture of the Bicester Park and Ride traveller encampment in April 2018 - 39 caravans

“I look forward to speaking in favour of the laws when they are brought to the House of Commons.”

However, Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) – a national charity that works on behalf of all gypsies, travellers and Roma communities – hit back at the plans, saying that the Government had ‘failed’ families by not identifying enough land for them.

The not-for-profit group said that its own research revealed the ‘shocking’ lack of pitches available on public traveller sites across the country.

ALSO READ: Oxford college told to overhaul drugs policy after death of student

Figures in the report showed that, while more than 1,696 households are currently on waiting lists for pitches, there are just 59 permanent and 42 transit pitches available in England.

A spokesperson for the non-profit said: “It is deeply unfair that while the Government is dramatically failing to identify enough land for gypsy and traveller families to live on, the Home Secretary is working to create laws to imprison and fine families living on roadside camps for the ‘crime’ of having nowhere else to go.

“The Government must do more to identify land for gypsy and traveller people to live and stop placing blame on the very families they have failed.

“Everybody needs a place to live.”

Travellers at the Water Eaton Park and Ride November 2018

Travellers at the Water Eaton Park and Ride November 2018

Currently, there are six permanent council-owned sites in Oxfordshire, providing 89 pitches.

There are also 21 privately-run caravan sites.

But research from FFT published in February last year concluded that only eight out of 68 councils in South East England had identified enough land in their area for travellers to live.

ALSO READ: Baptist Church minister resigns over 'secret' relationship

Emily Smith, Liberal Democrat leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, also welcomed the legislation.

She commented: “We welcome any legislation that helps us seek a resolution with the issue of illegal encampments.

“We will be working with partners to ensure that the new legislation is implemented locally when needed.”

Conservative county councillor for West Oxfordshire Liam Walker said that it was a ‘long overdue and significant’ move by the Government to make trespassing a criminal offence even though he said that most camps cause ‘little disruption’.

Resident Rosalie Lorrison shared photos of the travellers camp in Mill Road, Abingdon

Resident Rosalie Lorrison shared photos of the travellers camp in Mill Road, Abingdon

Hanborough and Minster Lovell division, near Witney, which is represented by Mr Walker, also saw a group of travellers moving in last summer that was later move on by police.

The councillor commented on the proposed legislation: “It is not right or fair that local taxpayers are always left to pick up the cost to clear up sites and move on illegal encampments.

“Most encampments cause little disruption but sadly there are at times numerous groups who do cause issues in the communities they stop off in.

“It is clear that we also need to identify more transit site locations so travellers have a specific place they can temporarily settle at rather than on private or common land.”

Keep up to date with all the latest news on our website, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

For news updates straight to your inbox, sign up to our newsletter here.

Have you got a story for us? Contact our newsdesk on news@nqo.com or 01865 425 445.