Bristol will be one of the first cities in the country to have a strategy for vehicle dwellers, but some fear it could simply end up displacing people.
Photos: Hannah Vickers
Additional reporting by Isabel Burnett
Bristol City Council is developing a new policy for live-in vehicles, which details enforcement powers to move on people living in vans, the Cable can exclusively reveal.
Created in partnership with Avon and Somerset Police, the Draft Policy for Vehicle Dwellers will be going out for consultation on 18 June, as Bristol becomes one of the first local authorities in the country to have a strategy for live-in vehicles.
This comes at a time of an overall rise in people living in vans, tents and temporary accomodation, which in turn has led to a rise in resident complaints. The council is especially keen to clear caravans and vans from Greenbank, something it’s starting to do next week. After a fire burnt out a car and two caravans at the weekend and a reported rise in complaints, the council is due to issue eviction notices to the caravans next week, with injunctions to stop people from immediately returning.
The council will be working closely with police in using enforcement powers to make people living in vans move on, but the Cable understands the police will not proactively seek out encampments and will not necessarily take legal action against encampments they judge to be ‘low impact’.
A low impact encampment is one that states an intention to stay for a short period of time – agreeing a departure date with the council – and doesn’t cause disruption or damage to the area.
However, if an encampment is deemed to affect the local community and causes serious breaches of the peace or criminal activity, it will be considered high impact and the new policy will give the council a framework to act.
When deciding whether or not to take action on a group of vans, the Cable understands the council and police will take several factors into account. These include the welfare needs of occupants, proximity to schools, play areas and public amenities, how many vans there are, how many people living there in total and how they’re managing their waste.
They’ll also look into the disruptiveness of the encampment and if there are any allegations of crime, public order offences, damage or nuisance.
The Cable understands from a source close to the council that the policy has been drafted, in part, to stop Bristol being seen as a ‘soft touch’ on vehicle dwellers.
“Here’s the problem: you either want to look like the caring, sharing council helping people or you want to use your powers to actually get rid of people and move them on”
The Cable contacted several councillors for their take on the draft policy.
“We’ve been looking at encampments in general, whether that is people in tents, vans, people sleeping in groups on the street or in public areas, and the extent to which it it possible to have a policy which is consistent, respectful of people and also aimed at meeting people’s needs” Paul Smith, cabinet lead for housing, told the Cable.
“And that’s the needs of the people themselves but also the people that use those facilities, whether it’s people who are using the roads and the pavements, people that are living near where they are or people using parks”.
Jude English, Green Party councillor for Ashley, said the amount of people living in vans, caravans and tents in Bristol shows that it’s “actually kind of a tolerant city” and that introducing a policy could backfire on the council.
“If we issue a policy that’s very draconian and punitive we’re going to not do [ourselves] any favours, because we’ll end up with displaced people,” she told the Cable.
“Here’s the problem: you either want to look like the caring, sharing council helping people or you want to use your powers to actually get rid of people and move them on, and we do have some legal powers to do that. And it’s quite hard for a council to know where to sit with that.”
What exactly can the council do?
The council has carefully researched its legal position and the policy outlines a whole host of enforcement powers the council and police can use. Despite the fact that a vehicle is allowed to be parked up on the road as long as it is MOT’d and taxed, the council has several laws, both criminal and civil, at its disposal.
One that it has already been used a multiple times is ‘Section 77 of the criminal justice and public order act 1994,’ the ‘Direct To Leave’ order, which brings a criminal prosecution and an order for removal if the vehicle doesn’t leave the area, as well as an injunction to stop the occupants returning for the next six years. This only applies to people in vans, not in tents.
If the van doesn’t leave, the council can get an order from a magistrates’ court and is then able to use ‘reasonable force’ to evict.
The Cable understands that the council is also able to use bylaws or apply to the courts for a preemptive injunction to seize property or stop encampments parking up.
The council has the power to prosecute for obstruction of a highway and can use anti-social behaviour laws to make people move on.
As well as local authority powers, the police are able to remove trespassers under public order laws, and seize a vehicle under environmental protection rules if it is suspected to be carrying or depositing waste illegally. They can also get a possession order – also available to private landowners – allowing them to remove trespassers from property and land.
However, the policy is expected to promise that the council and police will “wherever practicable” deal with van dwellers in a “reasonable and proportionate” way, keeping in mind a person’s human rights and carrying out a full assessment of welfare, education and health needs before enforcing.
Ruth Pickersgill, Labour councillor for Easton, told the Cable: “Everybody’s feeling their way, because van dwelling on this scale is something really new.”
“Nobody’s really got the answers so we’re all working through this together because there’s quite a lot of complexity around legislation and powers,” she added.
Smith told the Cable he expects the policy to be unpopular. “We’ll probably upset everybody. It’s because what we’re trying to do is a compromise between the different traditions that people have,” he said.
But he insisted it wouldn’t be a “one size fits all policy”.
“There’s no point taking a blanket approach to people who might be living in vans for all sorts of reasons, people who are living quite happily with their neighbours as opposed to those who might be causing some sort of nuisance or disturbance.”
The council’s public consultation on the matter will open on June 18.
Will you be affected by the council’s Draft Policy for Vehicle Encampments? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org