Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was accused of “grandstanding” and reinforcing “negative stereotypes” about travellers and gypsies after saying councils must act more quickly to shut unauthorised camps.
New guidance from the Department of Communities and Local Government outlines the legal powers councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised traveller sites, protest camps and squatters.
Joseph Jones, chairman of the Gypsy Council, likened Pickles’ actions to the Home Office’s controversial clampdown on illegal immigrants in London using a van telling them to go home, and the furore over Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom’s “bongo bongo land” comments.
“It’s creating tension, it’s a negative thing to do,” he said. “At the moment it seems like a theme. Recently we have had the Go Home campaign, then we have the bongo bongo thing going on. It seems like open season on ethnic minorities.”
Mr Jones dismissed as “nothing new” the summary of powers sent directly to local council leaders, which the Government hopes will give local residents a stronger voice in challenging their local authority to take action.
Mr Pickles has revoked Labour’s Equality and Diversity in Planning guidance, which he said told councils not to take enforcement action against travellers and suggested planning rules should vary depending on an individual’s background.
The DCLG said it was trying to prevent another incident like Dale Farm, in Essex, where a long-running legal battle was fought before bailiffs moved in to evict travellers. The total cost was £7m, with Basildon Council spending £ 4.8m.
Mr Jones said he did not support illegal sites and called for more legal sites to be created.
Mr Pickles denied the powers were an attack on the traveller community and said £60m was being made available to local authorities. He said: “We inherited a situation where the number of illegal sites had gone up four-fold and what we expect them to do is obey the law like you and I do.
“It does not give people the right to come on to a green belt...and to trash it. We’re treating travellers’ families exactly the same way as we’re treating the rest of population.”