This is a copy of the open letter from Chief Constable Nick Ephgrave QPM, to the Editor of the Surrey Advertiser, regarding unauthorised encampments across the county.
This summer has seen an unprecedented number of unauthorised encampments, no part of the county has been unaffected and as the summer has passed, the amount of ill feeling and anger about a perceived lack of action by police has been palpable.
The disappointing thing is that all of this was predicted and there is a practical solution available that would help. It has been successfully implemented in a number of surrounding counties, but has yet to be implemented in Surrey, leaving the local authorities and police with limited powers to deal with those intent on trespass.
Before I come to that solution, let me make it clear that there are two related but separate issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of an unauthorised encampment. This is of itself not a criminal matter and the lead agency for implementing eviction is the local authority, working with the land owner supported where necessary by the police. In this regard, it is absolutely the case that we in the police and our colleagues in the Boroughs and Districts have significantly upped our game this year and now have well-rehearsed and effective procedures for assessing and evicting unauthorised encampments in accordance with the legislation currently available to us. The shortcoming is that under the only legislation that we can utilise, there is nothing to stop those evicted from simply moving 100 yards down the road and setting up camp there. We then have to go through the whole rigmarole again and this is exactly what has happened this year, with repeated encampments as we follow groups round the county, creating further upset and disruption far and wide.
The related issue is that of criminality associated with some encampments. My clear direction to officers is that where there is criminality and where there is sufficient evidence to take action against identified perpetrators, then we will do so swiftly and firmly. The frustration comes when it is not possible to attribute a criminal act, for example criminal damage, to any one individual due to a lack of witnesses or other evidence to implicate them. This is no different to any other crime. One cannot simply arrest whole groups of people because ‘one of them must have done it’.
So, what else might be done? Under the legislation, if a designated transit site is available, the police are enabled to direct encampments to move immediately to the transit site, with far fewer criteria necessary to act. If those on the encampment refuse, or return to camp unlawfully elsewhere within three months they are liable to immediate arrest. Currently, Surrey has no transit sites and so none of these powers are available.
An increasing number of surrounding counties have created designated transit sites and their experience has been that this significantly addresses the issue of unauthorised encampments. Surrey, without any such sites, remains vulnerable to those who know the legislation and understand that the powers available to police are more limited, no doubt making Surrey an attractive venue for those who wish to set up unauthorised encampments.
To conclude, I recognise the frustration and anger of local residents and businesses affected by unauthorised encampments. We will deal with criminality as and when it occurs and continue to support local authorities in their actions, but the options available to my officers are limited and given other demands, I can ill afford the enormous resource and energy my officers put in to dealing with this. The provision of even one transit site will make an enormous difference to our ability to respond to unauthorised encampments, but it is not in my gift to make it happen – that is a difficult political decision that sits with our local leaders who I know have the issue under active consideration.