Thanet council order for Traveller families at Ramsgate Port to vacate site by next week

The temporary site at the Port

Thanet council has formally withdrawn consent for Traveller families at the Port of Ramsgate to stay on the site and has ordered the land to be vacated by October 23.

Pavee family members have been based at the port since June 2021. Thanet District Council originally attended Magistrates’ Court in May of that year seeking an order for removal of the group from Palm Bay. This was unsuccessful on welfare grounds and the council was told by the court to make available an alternative site. Ramsgate Port was identified as being able to provide facilities.

The magistrates’ court decision was made due to poor health of some members of the group, including a pregnant woman and a child under the care of Great Ormond Street Hospital.

A Section 77 eviction notice was again issued to some of those at the port in September 2021. The Gypsy and Traveller Coalition say this eviction notice was served just days after the death of a two day old baby amongst the group,

Thanet council said it served the notice on some of the families due to a new group moving onto the site without authorisation and displaying ‘antisocial behaviour.”

On December 1 2021 another section 77 notice to leave the land was served on everyone staying at the port site, described as Unoccupied land, with the notice adding: “You (together with any other persons with you) are DIRECTED forthwith to leave the land and also to remove the vehicle or vehicles and any other property any of you have with you from the land.”

Judicial Review

Photo ‘concerned local’

However, one member of the Pavee group was supported by The Gypsy and Traveller Coalition and a number of Ramsgate councillors to take the issue to Judicial Review and the High Court quashed the  section 77 eviction notice in April of this year deeming it invalid as: “no attempt was made to give reasonable, or any, notice before the process of removing SO (the claimant) by the use of draconian powers was implemented.”

The judgment raised the ‘public law duties’ of a local authority and noted: “A local authority acting reasonably and fairly having used such language would consult before making the decision to withdraw consent, as part of the Code of Conduct documents suggests.

“The failure to do this is not something which is criticised in these proceedings. However, such a local authority would also then inform those affected of what the decision was and allow them a reasonable time to vacate the Land before being made subject to criminal sanctions for failing to do so “as soon as practicable.”

Withdrawing consent

Now Thanet council has published a notice withdrawing consent for the families to stay on the land in front of the former ferry terminal.

The decision was taken by council chief executive Colin Carmichael.

The notice says: “In May/June 2021, the council made provision of a short term negotiated stopping site for a specific and limited travelling community, due to a particular set of defined and acute welfare concerns. The Council as landowner in effect granted authorisation to those individuals to occupy the site for a time-limited period, subject to review, as of 14th June 2021.

“The council subsequently sought to direct those individuals, as well as distinct unauthorised occupiers, to leave the Land.

“However, that decision was subject to a successful judicial review challenge. As the Court of Appeal noted it was clear that the council did not intend for the relevant individuals to occupy the land permanently, and that occupation was intended to last until the acute welfare issues identified at the time of the grant of the temporary authorisation had passed.

“Following the conclusion of those proceedings and in the light of further enquiries made by the relevant officers, the council has taken the formal decision to withdraw consent and authorisation for those specified individuals to occupy the land as a short-term negotiated stopping site.

“For the avoidance of doubt, the council no longer considers that anyone occupying the land does so with its consent or authorisation, including those who were originally granted temporary authorisation in June 2021.

“Following the withdrawal of consent, the previously authorised occupiers are now considered unauthorised campers. The unauthorised campers have until the 23rd of October to vacate the land.”

Direction to leave

Thanet council says on that date it will issue a direction to leave and remove the vehicles and any other property on the land. This may then prompt legal proceedings to have the site vacated.

The notice says the decision has been taken because the acute welfare concerns no longer apply and the authority requires the land in question for other purposes related to the operation of the Port of Ramsgate.

Thanet currently does not have an authorised Traveller site, with the nearest being in Canterbury and Dover although these are often over-subscribed.

High Court injunction

Paul James, of the Gypsy and Traveller Coalition, said the council now needs to recognise that the families are being made homeless.

He said: “The council has issued a notice withdrawing consent for the residents to be on the port but has yet to recognise them as statutory homeless as per legislation.

“This is a legal point raised at the meeting in May between the council and the residents’ representation.

“To date, the council has refused to acknowledge or comment on this or their obligation to appropriately accommodate the (families).

“A high court injunction to stop the council from evicting the residents could be sought, allowing the council to either accept or not accept this legislation and obligation.

“To put the residents out on the road is the equivalent of evicting one of their tenants and not taking responsibility for accommodating them under their homeless obligations.

“We would say that while the council accepts accommodating refugees and other homeless people, it seems that this group on the port does not warrant that consideration.

“The residents on the port have British passports, are British citizens, and are basically internal “refugees”

“The residents’ representatives  are looking for an emergency  meeting with the council to look at this issue.

“Putting the residents onto the road will only start the “camp and evict” roundabout again, with the court costs spiralling.

“The council does have land they can allot to this group until they follow their legal obligations to identify and provide a site for travellers in the area. Something they were supposed to do since 2010.

“The council is acting and has been acting in a discriminatory way towards the Travellers since that time.”

‘Statutorily homeless’

County Councillor Karen Constantine, who has been among those supporting the group, said the families still desperately need a secure place to stay.

She added: “Since their arrival a group of councillors myself included, have tried to provide ongoing support across a range of issues as we do to all residents. Times have been difficult for most people, with Covid and the cost of living crisis having a huge negative impact. I have also been severely shocked at the array of health needs of this group.

“Thanet council has however been far from helpful. Last year myself and a faith representative followed advice available on Thanet District Council website and formally notified the council in writing, of a large group of people on the Port site who were seeking to be considered as statutorily homeless by TDC. This list was detailed and included the full names, dates of birth and details of a range of significant health conditions.

“At the same time we sought a meeting with Thanet council, to discuss this matter, and to try to arrange an agreement about an ongoing stay on the Port site for the group, or to find another suitable site. So far just one meeting has been arranged and there is another one pencilled in for early next year.

“The list that we provided to the council, indeed I physically handed it over myself, has been reported as missing. No explanation or apology has been given.

“Subsequently, the list has been re-provided in full, but to date no formal response has been received. We contend, and the lawyers and Barrister we have contracted with agree, that this group who have been living on the port for a significant amount of time, are in fact, statutorily homeless. The significance of this is that should TDC move forward with a formal eviction process. They will be legally obliged to find another plot of land which this community can occupy.

“I should make it clear here, that the group are happy to pay rent for such land, and the facilities associated with it, rubbish collection etc – that has always been the case, although Thanet council has never sought rent or other contribution. The council has received more £50,000 from central government funds to provide this facility.”

Cllr Constantine says she is saddened that the families will be forced back on the road, especially as they will now face criminalisation under new Criminal Justice Act. In June 2022, the Police Act 2022 came into force, which means people who live on roadside camps may now face time in prison, a £2500 fine or their home being taken from them.

‘Lose access to vital services’

She added: “Many of those on the site are children – some in education – with significant health conditions and the adults also tend to be in very poor health. On the road they will lose access to vital health and educational services. I’m afraid that cannot be right. Especially as it would be possible for them to remain on part of the site – which is – after all a large vacant brown field plot.

“Locally positive relations have been established  between the travellers and the nearby settled population. They have lived there without any issues for a significant length of time.

“The recent fly tipping episode, which was both an eyesore and a hazard – which TDC had to be forced to remove via the involvement of the Kent and Medway Public Health Director – was due to the site being left insecure and open to who ever wanted to dump waste there. Steps can be taken to prevent a reoccurrence.

“The Port isn’t perfect but as one resident said to me, ‘it’s paradise!’ compared to the alternative.

“Via the Isle of Thanet News I’m asking TDC to get back round the table with us. To thrash out a plan which at least takes us through to the Spring and to redouble their efforts to find another site. It seems highly unlikely that this land is earmarked for any other use in the short to medium term. No-one else is using the land.”

Cllr Constantine said further Judicial proceedings may be pursued.

‘Commitment to continue positive work’

Thanet council deputy leader Helen Whitehead has disputed the claims made by Cllr Constantine and Mr James.

She said: “We have had continued and positive dialogue throughout this process, and it is personally disappointing to see that this has not been accurately presented. It does not, however, diminish my commitment to continue the positive work and communication that has come from the Council.

“As Cabinet Member for Housing, I arranged a meeting to discuss community needs as soon as we became the administration; this was a very positive meeting, which was acknowledged in written communication by all parties.

“On Friday 22nd September, I wrote to all representatives who attended this meeting, explaining further what had already been discussed in the meeting; that the port was not suitable for long term occupation, will continue to become less so as works begin at the port, advising all parties of progress made to identify future sites and the successful homelessness applications made, and requesting a meeting to discuss things further.

“We have had no contact from Traveller representatives since that point to take up the offer of a meeting; I have already arranged one, however, as I am aware that ward councillors would like to discuss the ongoing process.

“To begin the process of withdrawing consent for usage of the port, a letter was sent to the Traveller Coalition on Monday 16 October, formally withdrawing consent for the use of the land at the Port of Ramsgate for an unofficial Traveller encampment. As explained previously in the letter sent on Friday 22 September, we will review the position at the end of the notice period before making any further decisions. As also explained within the letter, this is not an immediate process; it is the beginning of a legal process, which involves many safeguarding steps, as well as continued work on future site identification and the ongoing support from Housing to support residents who wish to make homelessness applications.

“The situation we find ourselves in is not easy; what was initially an emergency placement in an unsuitable area, turned into a longer stay in an alternative location that is still unsuitable for residential accommodation.

“This decision has been made on the basis that the Port is not a suitable living environment. We need to address living conditions for the Travellers; residents need better, and we are working to deliver better. As previously mentioned, the port activities in Ramsgate are also due to increase shortly, which will result in more construction and making the location even more unsuitable for residential occupation.

“Identifying long term housing options for Travellers is vital, and the last few months have been very busy on that front, with work progressing on the strategy explained in the letter sent to representatives to identify potential smaller sites.

“We will, as always, continue to support residents with further homelessness applications if the families wish to make them. In the meantime, the council continues to service the shower and toilet blocks on site, with waste collections twice a week. Fly-tipping has been removed from the Port land.

“We continue to make regular welfare visits to the port, to ensure that we are providing appropriate support and taking welfare needs into account in any decision that we make.

“I am fully committed to continuing with the dialogue we have established with the Traveller Coalition, to find accommodation that works in the long term. By working together we can create the homes and support that are sorely needed, as well as the recognition of Travellers as a valued part of our community.”

‘Fuss isn’t necessary’

Cllr Tricia Austin, one of the three Central Harbour ward Councillors who have been working with the group since they were moved to the Port site in 2021, said: “The fuss that’s blown up around this notice isn’t necessary and certainly isn’t helping the Traveller families.

“Since the families were first placed at the Port, we’ve had a very welcome change of senior staffing at TDC, and more recently new political leadership, resulting in a much more positive approach to this issue, which everyone affected has noticed and appreciated.

“At the very welcome meeting Cllr Whitehead hosted in July with ward councillors, TDC Heads of Service and Gypsy & Traveller Coalition representatives, she made it clear that TDC would have to issue this notice at some point soon, but stressed that this was simply by way of starting off a formal longer-term legal process.

“We’ve explained this to the residents at the Port we’ve been working with, while helping them with the practicalities of homelessness and housing applications. The council’s Housing and Homelessness teams have been really helpful and I can’t fault the support they’ve offered.

“We will of course continue to work with the Traveller group, and confidently expect a continuing constructive dialogue with TDC Cabinet members and senior officers.”