EXCLUSIVE SPECIAL REPORT: Council lets traveller site DOUBLE in size after spending £250K razing ill
AUTHORISED: Illegal pitches in Hovefields may now get permission eight years after a £250K demolition A COUNCIL is allowing a controversial traveller site to almost double in size just eight years after it spent around £250,000 demolishing half of it... and at the same time as it is investigating a suspected illegal waste dump and housing scam there.
Basildon Council gave the green light to the potential for the lawful expansion at the site at Hovefields Drive, Wickford, in Essex, despite opposition from neighbouring residents who backed the authority's bid to clamp down on unauthorised developments there in 2010.
The decision by the council to allocate room for 13 more legal caravan pitches at the site comes despite traveller landowners there collectively owing the authority around £250,000 for the previous enforcement action.
There have been 13 authorised pitches at Hovefields for several years, but by 2004 it was illegally expanded to about 25.
AERIAL: The site has seen sporadic development since around 2002
The council razed the unlawful ones between 2005 and 2010.
However, a similar number have been built without permission on different bits of land and the council has now said it will authorise them, including two that it previously bulldozed
GONE: Hampton Court pitch (top) was cleared (bottom) in 2010 but could now be rebuilt
Settled residents who live in nine homes in the road said the landowners were being "rewarded for breaking the law."
Jill Walsh, of Hovefields Residents' Association, said: "It is very wrong to concentrate almost 50 per cent of new traveller pitches in Hovefields, so that they so outnumber residents' households which goes against planning policy and it is just rewarding illegal development.
The value of the pitches will rise significantly for the traveller owners if planning permission is granted.
But, many land owners still owe the council thousands of pounds from previous eviction operations.
CLEARANCE: Essex Police and bailiffs during a 2010 eviction at Hovefields
When the council carried out the clearances it put land charges in place that would allow it to force the sale of that land at auction to recover some or all of its money.
But, it has not done this and so far just £2,000 has been paid back by one traveller who then went on to default on the rest of the around £20,000 owed.
Another resident living nearby said: "It's a joke. The council spends all that money on a clearance and eights years later says almost as many pitches can come back, including two of the ones it demolished. They haven't even got the money they owe out of them.
"Then there is all the illegal activity going on that is supposed to be investigated."
One part of the site, known as Land West of Hovefields, is not allowed any development after the council won a High Court battle against several families who set up pitches with no planning permission.
TORCHED: Smoke drifts over the A127 at Wickford as another mobile home burns at Hovefields
They were ordered off by an injunction and enforcement notices, but families have cleared the land by filling mobile homes with junk and setting them on fire on a number of occasions.
Essex Fire and Rescue Service confirmed it had attended a number of fires involving rubbish or mobile homes being torched this year.
EXPLOSION: Smoke rages as mobile homes were set on fire
The empty site now appears to have been turned into an illegal land fill dump with truck loads of building and commercial waste being dumped there and other waste burnt.
Residents said the council and Environment Agency, which both have responsibility for enforcing against illegal waste disposal, appeared to be doing nothing about it.
Under planning rules, if gypsies or travellers are given planning permission for caravan sites in the green belt, due to an apparent unmet need, they must only be occupied by people from that community.
TIP: Other photographs show Land West of Hovefields being used as a dump
But, the council is investigating whether some mobile homes on the site, with and without planning permission, are being rented out to anyone.
This is a housing scam that has been identified at other traveller sites in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.
Hovefields mobile homes have been found advertised on Gumtree for £150 per week or £700 a month.
ADVERTS: Mobile homes at Hovefields being rented out to anyone through Gumtree
Residents fear the council allowing the pitches will simply be a green light to travellers for further illegal development.
In the last few days a giant mobile home was delivered to one of the plots in four parts.
The 13 new pitches at Hovefields are among a total of 29 unauthorised ones across the borough earmarked for approval if the council's local plan gets approved.
A council spokeswoman said: "The Basildon Borough Revised Publication Local Plan was approved at a meeting of full council in October.
"It includes an intention to contribute to delivering a minimum of 29 new pitches by working with the travelling community to ensure that existing unauthorised sites are regularised and permitted for use.
The plan will now be published for public consultation until mid December 2018, with a view to submit it to the Secretary of State by the end of March 2019."
Turning to money owed, she said: "A payment of over £2,000 was made by the landowners of the Hampton Court site as part of an agreed repayment plan. No further payments have been received by the council.
"An amended emergency motion was passed at full council with a resolution to issue reminder invoices to all known landowners owing money as a consequence of planning enforcement.
"It was also resolved that if payments remain outstanding, officers will be instructed to prepare a phased programme seeking to enforce payment using all appropriate legal options."
She confirmed the authority was investigating a suspected commercial rental scam there, adding: "There have been a number of allegations concerning the commercial renting of mobile homes within the Hovefields area. The council has an ongoing investigation and as such we are unable to comment further at this stage.”
She also confirmed illegal waste disposal was being investigated.
She said: "We are working with our partners to ensure compliance with the current injunction and enforcement notices is achieved, but are unable to comment further as this is an ongoing operational matter."
The Environment Agency initially said it had responded to concerns about illegal waste disposal at Hovefields, but after a site visit had established the activity could continue and ithad been given an exemption from a license as it involved the "re-use of building material in a development".
However, when we pressed it on this, because no development is allowed at the site, it retracted the statement and said no such exemption had been granted.
A spokeswoman said: "Really sorry for the confusion caused. To confirm, there is no exemption registered on the Hovefields site.
"EA officers will be monitoring the situation and will take the necessary steps if an environmental regulation is breached.
“Our officers are working with Basildon Council to ensure the site is operating in line with environmental regulations. We encourage members of the public to support our efforts in tackling waste crime by reporting incidents to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”