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Millions spent on dealing with illegal Traveller sites

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Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash is being spent dealing with the scourge of illegal Traveller camps.

An investigation by The Sunday Post has found more than five unauthorised sites a week are springing up in towns and villages across Scotland.

In hundreds of cases cash-strapped councils have been forced to launch expensive legal bids to evict families who set up on public and private land without permission. They have also been hit with huge bills to clean up the sites after the Travellers have moved on.

Incredibly, however, the taxpayer often has to pay twice, as huge sums are also being lavished on official Traveller campsites, some of which aren’t even full. In an ironic twist these were only set up to combat the relentless rise of illegal encampments.

Critics warn the trend for unauthorised sites is blighting communities and affecting house prices amid a wave of complaints about fly-tipping, crime and other anti-social behaviour. However, police and councils are powerless to act because of archaic century-old legislation and guidelines that advocate a presumption against prosecution of Travellers.

Labour MP for Glenrothes Lindsay Roy said: “It’s shocking the public purse is having to fork out money that can be ill-afforded just to get Travellers off land and then clear up the disgusting mess they leave behind.

“In many ways, some Travellers feel they can stick the proverbial two fingers up to the authorities and get away with it.

“But the thing is, they can. They get asked to move, stay for days, make a mess, then move on when they feel like it but only 200 yards along the road, starting the whole process again.”

There is no specific law in place in Scotland to deal with unauthorised encampments.

In theory, the 149-year-old Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865 can deem it an offence to set up a site without permission ,but police are bound by guidelines issued by the Lord Advocate in 2004 that there is a presumption against prosecution of Travellers for such a crime.

It means officers have no legal right or authority to clear illicit sites or move Travellers from land and to do so would be unlawful.

Our probe using freedom of information law reveals there have been a staggering 2,868 illegal encampments set up in Scotland since 2004, with the traveller population estimated to total more than 15,000. There has also been at least £13.6m of taxpayers’ cash spent on dealing with the issue over the same period.

However, the figure is likely to be far higher, with 10 of the 32 local authorities either unable to provide data on their overall bill, or failing to respond to The Sunday Post. If the spend was extrapolated across all councils in Scotland it would give a total of about £4,800 a day. Of the local authorities that did provide information, Fife has spent the most, with almost £2.5m coming from its coffers in the past decade, most of it to operate three council-run encampments.

A total of £1.5m has been spent by Aberdeen City, with officials revealing the operating cost of its authority-run Traveller site now stands at £106,730-a-year.

In neighbouring Aberdeenshire, the council’s fully-serviced Greenbanks site in Banff, which has space for 40 caravans, costs at least £36,000-a-year to run.

Officials also employ a part-time gypsy/Traveller liaison worker on a £20,000 salary.

North Lanarkshire also has a liaison officer, on a pay scale of up to £34,494.

Highland, which spends £115,000-a-year on gypsy/Traveller initiatives, has forked out more than £1,200 on running Traveller awareness seminars for councillors in the past two years, and Edinburgh allocated £6,000 for pest control to Traveller sites last year.

In East Lothian the 16-pitch authorised site at Old Dalkeith Colliery costs £90,614-a-year to operate, with a total of £444,595 spent by the council dealing with Travellers since 2004.

Our figures show five councils, including Falkirk, South Ayrshire, and South Lanarkshire, have handed out grants totalling £11,000 for food and clothing to Traveller families. And more than £217,000 has also been wasted on legal fees since 2004 as council officials went to court 223 times to evict Travellers.

In addition, the Scottish Government has spent £5m on dealing with Travellers since 2006, half of it to charities and voluntary groups. A total of £1.3m was allocated to a project for developing “e-learning and gypsy/Traveller education”.

Ironically, many Travellers don’t pay council tax because they claim they don’t get a full range of council services.

Mr Roy, who said a number of his Fife constituents have complained about problems with Travellers, said: “We are plagued by illegal encampments in high profile areas, whether that be public parks, on the roadside, on land owned by private businesses or in space used by the local authorities themselves.”

Travellers have a long history in Scotland, with a number of references to them in royal circles during the realm of James IV in the early 16th century. When the first gypsies arrived in Denmark in 1505 they even carried a letter of recommendation from the Scottish king, and it is known Romanies danced at Holyrood Palace in 1530.

While they have been in Scotland for many centuries, they still retain much of their own cultures and customs.

Author Jess Smith, who has penned books about Traveller heritage, said she is frustrated at the hostility towards her community and insisted more should be done to help gypsy families.

She said: “I wouldn’t say £14m sounds a lot. For instance, how much does it cost to fight drug addiction? Or how much is spent within officialdom on vanity projects?

“Councillors have to stop being afraid of the repercussions at the ballot box and open up more areas for Travellers. Let’s create peace, not war.”

Fife Council leader David Ross defended the local authority’s spend by saying it “provides more site provision than most others”.

He added: “We aim to provide a good range of services to Travellers and in return we seek their help in ensuring that unauthorised encampments don’t case nuisance to surrounding residents or businesses.”

Officials at the Scottish Government said gypsy/Traveller communities were funded as part of an overall £60m spend from the Equality budget.

A spokesman added Travellers are “among the most disenfranchised and discriminated against in Scotland”.

One member of the Travelling community Mark Leach-Vallely, 33, who is currently living in rural Cumbria said he has become used to feeling “demonised”.

He said: “We’re the expensive bogeyman no one wants on their doorstep in case we bring down the neighbourhood or do something to peoples’ house prices. But, like Joe Bloggs in his semi, this is our life. What are we to do? When we ask for greater protection we’re a burden to the taxpayer. When we don’t we’re a rogue menace. We’re damned if we do. Damned if we don’t.”