Suspended prison sentences likely for travellers who defied injunction on site at Little Hadham
The High Court has come down hard on a group of travellers who illegally set up camp on land in Little Hadham on Good Friday in the hope that council planning officers would be enjoying a day off.
On April 19, at the start of the Easter weekend, lorries and heavy diggers began piling hardcore on land off Chapel Lane, Westland Green.
Judge Graham Wood QC said: "It is not hard to conclude that the intention was to 'steal a march' on those who might enforce planning restrictions."
And the travellers showed "a degree of surprise" when East Herts Council officers turned out to be on duty and wide awake, the court heard.
On Easter Saturday, over the phone, the council persuaded a judge to grant an injunction, ordering 19 travellers off the land.
They were also told to remove caravans and mobile homes from 10 pitches that had been laid out and to restore the site to its former condition.
After the travellers failed to comply, council lawyers were back in court in July, seeking their imprisonment for contempt.
Alan Masters, for the travellers, said that they had now put in a formal planning application to authorise the site's use as a traveller encampment.
He argued that the "status quo" should be maintained pending the outcome of the planning process.
The barrister said the personal circumstances of the travellers were compelling and there was nowhere else where they could settle lawfully.
There are a number of children on the site, some of whom suffer from serious medical conditions, the court heard.
But Judge Wood said it was clear from photos and Facebook posts that the travellers were "determined to carry on regardless".
All but one of the travellers had admitted disobeying the injunction, although their breaches were described as "technical".
Judge Wood noted that, if evicted from the site, the travellers could be housed in bricks-and-mortar homes, although that might be "anathema" to them.
The speed with which the council acted meant that they had had little time to establish a human right to respect for "family life" on the site.
He acknowledged the rights of children living there and "the probable absence of any alternative site".
But he ruled that such factors were outweighed by the need to bring to an end a continuing breach of planning control.
The council, he added, had acted entirely properly with a view to clearing the site "swiftly and with minimal disruption".
Refusing to revise the injunction, Judge Wood described it as "necessary and proportionate".
He added: "There were deliberate attempts to pre-empt the council in any action which it may take by seeking to establish pitches and hardstandings before these could be prevented."
After finding the travellers in contempt of court, the judge said he would pass sentence on them at a hearing later this month.
He indicated that he was not minded to send any of them to jail immediately and that suspended sentences would probably be appropriate.
But he warned them that if their disobedience with the injunction continued, they would face stiffer punishment.
After the hearing on Thursday (Sept 5), Cllr Linda Haysey, leader of East Herts Council, said: "We take unlawful development in our district very seriously and I hope this will deter anyone else from acting without planning permission in future. I would like to thank all those involved for their dedication and hard work on this case."