Published: 05:00, 08 January 2022
| Updated: 10:15, 08 January 2022
Thousands of traveller caravans were pitched in Kent last summer – and 341 were on unauthorised sites, figures show.
But new legislation could threaten the nomadic traditions of Gypsies and traveller communities by criminalising unauthorised encampments, the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity warned, as it called the proposed measures "draconian".
Currently passing through Parliament, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would see police given greater powers to tackle such encampments, including the right to seize vehicles and impose heavy fines on those trespassing "with intent to reside".
Last July, there was space for only one caravan at local authority and privately-owned sites in Swale, according to the government's latest traveller caravan count.
Data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities shows there were 3,545 traveller caravans in the county last July – up from 1,899 in July 2019, when the last summer count took place.
Of those counted last year, 341 were on unauthorised pitches.
The figures show the Maidstone area was home to the most caravans in 2021.
Overall 744 were there - the exact same number which had been recorded two years earlier - with 250 of those on unauthorised pitches.
There was a slight increase in Swale where 274 were found, of which 22 were on unauthorised pitches.
In Sevenoaks, of 167, 13 were on unauthorised land.
The Canterbury area saw the greatest leap in terms of overall caravans, up 29 to 128.
Across England, 21,000 traveller caravans were on approved pitches at the first count since the coronavirus pandemic began – almost 90% of those counted.
However, the figures show 3,000 were on unauthorised encampments, with most of those situated on land belonging to travellers and Gypsies.
The number of caravans parked up on other unapproved sites has dropped by a third nationally since the last summer count was conducted in July 2019.
But the FFT says it gives no indication of the number of people waiting for approved pitches.
'It's utterly illogical and immortal to use the full force of the law to tell people they can't go - without telling them where they can go...'
The charity estimates hundreds of people could be waiting for a space across England, while the figures show just two new socially rented pitches were created nationally between July 2019 and July 2021.
The introduction of new legislation could have a "chilling" impact on those currently residing on roadside camps and those who wish to live nomadically, according to FFT.
Abbie Kirkby, public affairs and policy manager at the charity, said the count failed to capture a "grim lack" of safe stopping spaces.
She said: "It tells us the number of vehicles, but nothing about the people and stories behind them.
"With the government’s policing bill making its way through Parliament, Gypsy and Traveller people living roadside will soon be caught in a catch-22 of potentially facing prison or being forced to move into bricks and mortar.
"It’s utterly illogical and immoral to use the full force of the law to tell people where they can’t go - without telling them where they can go."
A government spokesman said it welcomed the reduction in unauthorised sites and had provided funding to councils to build traveller sites an in effort to ensure Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are supported.
She added: "Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the government is delivering on a manifesto commitment to strengthen the police’s powers to arrest and seize the vehicles of those who set up unauthorised encampments and cause damage, disruption, or distress."