Row over actions of councillors in how they dealt with travellers in Havant

Travellers at Mengham Park (Photo: Contributed)
Travellers at Mengham Park (Photo: Contributed)

Councillor David Keast, a Conservative member of Havant Borough Council, has singled out Labour’s Cllr Mark Coates and Cllr Phillipa Gray of the Liberal Democrats for their engagement with Travellers, which he deemed inconsistent with council guidance.

Cllr Keast said that council officers have become very adept in repossessing council-owned land from Traveller ‘incursions’.

“Astonishingly, despite this well-established and effective process, two Havant Borough Councillors seemed to think that they know better,’ he added.

Travellers at Mengham Park (Photo: Contributed)
Travellers at Mengham Park (Photo: Contributed)

“Mark Coates recently took a couple of six packs of beer and wine and joined a group of Travellers who were trespassing on land on Hayling Island and invited them to join him for a drink.

“The group finally left when a court order was served, not as a result of Cllr Coates’ visit, as he later tried to claim.”

In the second case, Cllr Keast shared an email written by Cllr Gray following a Traveller encampment pitched in Bedhampton. In her email, which was written to all HBC councillors, Cllr Gray stated she visited the encampment ‘not as a representative of the council’.

It reads: “Everyone was very polite and friendly, I was told several reasons for their presence but got a consistent message that they will move on before Monday. A police officer visited Hooks Lane this morning when I walked through the park.”

Cllr Keast adds that in both cases ‘legal proceedings were already underway to remove the Travellers’ and the police were involved.

He added: “Such actions by individual Councillors not only puts them at serious risk, it also gives the incursions an air of legitimacy. In Councillor Gray’s case, she suggests they have reasons to be there and are leaving on Monday, so that is okay.

“Their individual actions are totally at odds with local council advice.”

In response, Cllr Coates said: “It’s very kind of Cllr Keast to be concerned about my safety, and I thank him for his concern.

“However, I am pleased to reassure him that visiting a Traveller camp does not put me at “serious risk” nor does it give the camps an “air of legitimacy”.

“This summer I took a small pack of beer (just enough for a small 330ml can each – certainly not “6 packs of beer and wine” – I like and respect Councillor Keast, but he does have a penchant for the dramatic – down to an encampment and we sat and had a chat around their fire for an hour or so.

“The camp then moved on without incident; I am certainly not claiming to have moved them on – HBC has a very dedicated and effective team who not only serve court orders but also triangulate any concerns with other organisations.

“Every time a Traveller encampment arrives in a local community, scaremongering and fake news stalks them through social media and tittle-tattle.

“The truth is, they are a group of people with a different way of life; as with every demographic, there will be a minority who will be happy to break rules and a majority who are personable and don’t want any trouble.

“Let’s not assume they will necessarily put anyone at “serious risk” but treat them as we find them.

“As for me, I’m happy to sit down and have a beer with any maligned group of people – even the local Conservatives.”

Cllr Gray added that the issue surrounding Traveller encampments is ‘much more important than my actions or even Cllr Keast’s opinion of my actions’.

“Unauthorised Traveller encampments have been a problem for as long as I can remember; the HBC officers and their team do an excellent job, but I see no evidence that moving Travellers on quickly deters others from visiting our Borough.

“Furthermore, listening to residents I have realised that the anticipation of encampments causes as much stress as the encampments themselves. Residents should be, and feel, free to enjoy our open spaces; it is time to look for better, fairer, more innovative ways to manage unauthorised encampments, rather than sticking to the current, costly ‘one size doesn’t fit anyone’ strategy.

“If we cannot achieve this within the Borough, we should work with neighbouring authorities and demand help from our national government.

“I first learned about the Travellers’ camp at Hooks Lane Recreation Ground from a concerned Bedhampton resident and visited the park to see for myself what was happening.

“I spoke briefly with people in the park, some of them residents, some Travellers, and returned several times to see how things developed. As Councillor Keast says, I always made it clear that I was there not on behalf of the council but making my own investigations.

“I gave the officers and councillors a factual account of what I was doing as a courtesy and to avoid any misunderstanding; I said nothing that implied that it was ok for Travellers to be at Hooks Lane, and, since my email was intended only for officers and councillors, I do not believe that I either changed anyone’s mind or influenced the course of events.”