Simon Kirby, the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, initiated a House of Commons debate today about unathorised travellers’ sites and houses being used for commercial parties.
He said: “In recent weeks constituents have become increasingly concerned about the influx of travellers into Brighton, creating unauthorised encampments, and the attitude of the new city council’s Green administration to this issue.
“Allied to this, there has been a ‘tent-city’ style protest against Spanish austerity organised by the so-called Real Democracy campaign on the historic Old Steine in Brighton.
“This has not been moved on by the police and in fact is welcomed by the Greens as the kind of peaceful protest they would like to see.
“Furthermore, we have seen a number of houses in the Ovingdean and Roedean areas of my constituency being used as so-called ‘party houses’, where former homes in residential streets are turned into the equivalent of nightclubs for 24-hour partying over the weekends.
“As you can imagine none of this sits well with law-abiding constituents who pay their taxes and obey the rules.
“Brighton has been a magnet for travellers for many years.
“However, previous administrations that have run the council have created a site for travellers in the Horsdean area of Brighton, which was refurbished by the recently departed Conservative administration, and which is located in the constituency of the Honourable Member for Brighton Pavilion – yet this has not stemmed the flow of travellers appearing in the area.
“When they do arrive, traveller groups set up unauthorised encampments wherever the mood seems to take them and this can be on either publicly owned land (often owned by the city council) or on a privately owned land, such as a field.
“Residents then get annoyed and phone the police or the council.
“The council and police are supposed to work together on this matter but often there appears to be delay while the legally mandated ‘welfare checks’ are carried out and whilst consideration is given to seeking an order for the travellers to move under section 61 of the Public Order Act.
“Meanwhile, as happened recently in the Happy Valley area of my constituency, I receive, as do the police and the council, allegations of damage, fouling and abusive behaviour towards the settled community.
“When this happened, I asked for evidence to be found to prove the allegations but it seems to be a common theme whenever unauthorised encampments appear.
“What is the result? Often it is that local taxpayers, that is, those who may have had their way of life disrupted by the creation of an unauthorised encampment, then have to pay through their local taxes to make right the damage that has been caused and to clear the refuse that has built up.
“In the last three years, figures from Brighton and Hove City Council show, that costs of around £233,000 have been incurred to simply clear up unauthorised encampments.
“This money has to be raised at a time of general restraint of public expenditure when residents would like more of their money spent on parks, libraries and grass cutting.
“In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the previous Conservative-led council spent some £160,000, again no mean sum in local government terms, on refurbishing the travellers site that had been built some ten years or so before.
“A further site is being explored at present but no decision has yet been taken on its location.
“Further, I understand that the traveller team’s annual budget is £310,000.
“Often criticism like this is cited as nimbyism, or worse, racism. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
“What people in my constituency complain about, and I suspect in other honourable members’ constituencies as well, is not that people should not be able to lead their lives in their own way but that in so doing they do not create a cost and inconvenience for others.
“In the case of unauthorised encampments in Brighton, there is a cost involved because of the lifestyle of others.
“Constituents tell me that they feel that the new Green-led city council has given the green light to travellers to create unauthorised encampments in the city.
“The comments of a lead councillor who said that a group of travellers had ‘reluctantly’ been asked by the council to be moved on, does not imply a willingness to see fewer rather than more encampments in Brighton.
“To be fair, I understand following discussions with senior officers in the council that the policy has not changed in terms of moving travellers off unauthorised encampments as soon as possible, yet the tone of public statements by the Greens sends a very different message.
“We shall see who is right, when a large group of travellers leaves Essex in the near future.
“Where will they go?
“To a council that is not sympathetic, or one, by the statements of its senior figures, that appears to be?
“The Greens have set a dangerous precedent by their public attitude and comments and residents are genuinely worried at what may be about to be visited upon them in terms of nuisance and cost.
“I mentioned in my introductory remarks that a further type of unauthorised encampment has been created on the historic Old Steine area of Brighton.
“This is a large open, grassy area close to the seafront with a café and a fountain.
“It is possible to see the pier from the Steine and it is a favourite attraction for residents and visitors alike.
“Several weeks ago, several people, protesting on the eve of the Spanish elections, regarding the austerity measures having to be taken in that country, decided to create a tent city on the Old Steine.
“They had a very happy time, banging drums, writing their protest placards and creating a focus for world revolution.
“Yet the reality is, their camp was unauthorised.
“They are now moving on but still believe it is their right to re-occupy the area whenever they choose.
“We know how permanent so-called temporary tent cities can become because we have one across the road from this very Palace.
“Many constituents rightly argue to me that if a group of protesters is allowed to set up a camp like this and, crucially, are not moved on by the police, then why can’t they, with a group of friends, take their caravans to the Steine and make a holiday camp for themselves?
“The only difference seems to be that one group has placards decrying the democratic processes which allow dissent and protest, and one does not.
“There is no excuse for long-term tent cities like this.
“We have a vigorous Parliament, where the issues of global economic trends, the management of national debt, who is responsible for the recent recession and how we may move forward, are debated daily.
“The local council in Brighton allows residents to bring petitions, ask questions and trigger debate in council if enough people sign a petition on a particular issue or subject.
“There is no lack of opportunity for debate and there is no excuse for tent cities in Brighton.
“If I may be slightly critical of public authorities in Brighton, this tent city protest should not have been allowed to take place for the length of time that it has.
“Like London, Brighton has seen many protests in the last year against the coalition government’s policies, although the alternatives seem remarkably thin in coming forward.
“Locally, we have seen private property vandalised, people’s lives disrupted and for a place that thrives on the tourist trade, the potential of damage to a staple industry.
“There is a long won right to protest, we understand that, but the protesters do nobody any good, especially those who are seeking to earn their living in Brighton, if they frighten people away from the city or make it ever harder to do business there.
“We have seen a report already that a business is moving back to London because it does not want its trading disrupted any further.
“How does encouraging jobs out of the city help those who are economically disadvantaged within it?
“Of course, it doesn’t, it has precisely the reverse effect.
“Those who rely on the taxes of others to fund their public service work need to remember that creating and, most importantly, maintaining the best conditions for business is the best way to keep taxes flowing in to support their work.
“I would also like to briefly mention ‘party houses’.
“These are homes generally in quiet residential areas, often three of four bedroomed properties, that are let out for hen and stag parties and which are then used to sleep around 20 people.
“This can lead to three days of non-stop partying until the early hours.
“This disturbs residents who are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their homes, destroys the amenity of an area, and creates a further sense of flouting the rules by which most sensible communities live.
“If you choose to live in the centre of Brighton, then you can expect noise and disturbance.
“If you choose to live in an area which is mainly residential you should be able to expect to be able go about your business with peace and quiet.
“Some roads in my constituency now have more than one party house located within them.
“The previous leader of the council held a roundtable discussion with council officers, the police and fire authority representatives to see what can be done about this issue.
“What she heard was that essentially the hands of public authorities seem tied.
“This cannot be right.
“I hope when the minister replies he will acknowledge the discomfort and nuisance caused to existing residents of Brighton by the various incoming groups I have described.
“In summing up, I want to urge the minister to consider the following.
“On travellers, we need to strengthen the powers of the police to move on travellers much more quickly than now.
“There should be clear guidelines as to when the police must act and those guidelines must err on the side of protecting the property and amenity rights of the settled population.
“The issue of mandatory welfare checks needs to be urgently reviewed as well as does the level of resources local authorities need to undertake the work required when traveller incursions take place.
“On protest camps, the law of trespass needs to be firmly enforced.
“Again, the police must be given clear instructions on how to handle these kinds of situations.
“What is the point of operational independence for the police if the law appears to be suspended for certain groups in society?
“Finally, on party houses, I believe we need an amendment to the Localism Bill, which is now in the other place (the House of Lords), to give local authorities more powers when homes are clearly being used for commercial purposes not recognised as reasonable such as renting to families or individuals or being used for quiet purposes such as having a small home office.
“People in Brighton tell me they have had enough of their lives being disrupted by outside groups who use the city for their own ends.
“The settled majority have rights as well.
“They are looking to this Parliament to uphold those rights.”