Over 40 Burnham-On-Sea residents have attended a public meeting in the town this week to voice their concerns to Police and local councils at disruption caused by visits of travellers over the summer.
The meeting, arranged by Burnham and Highbridge Town Council, follows several groups of travellers pitching up on the Cassis Close playing fields, in local car parks, on the seafront lawns next to the sailing club and the Cookson Close playing fields.
Sergeant Jonathan Eamer from Avon and Somerset Police and Chris Hall, Executive Director for Community Services at Somerset Council, both fielded questions from residents during the 80-minute meeting at the BAY Centre.
Sergeant Eamer explained the legal process that has to be followed by Police to move travellers from public land. He added that “improvements have already been made this year and we are looking at ways to speed up the steps.”
One resident said he believes “travellers seem to have more rights than residents – they stay in our car parks for days at a time and don’t pay parking fines while we do if we’re just a few minutes over time. That’s wrong.”
Somerset Council’s Chris Hall explained that travellers are a “minority group that is protected under the Equality Act which we respect.” He added that the council is “frustrated” by the issues, adding that the “we need to make Somerset marginally less attractive to them to visit.”
A member of the BAY Centre team spoke emotionally about the community impact of the travellers pitching up on the nearby Cassis Close car park and playing fields over the summer.
“This affected hundreds of children who would have met here. We as a community centre survive on rent and the groups survive on numbers of members attending. Our rent income went down by 50 per cent while the travellers were here. Many local people were frightened to come here. The effects on the community are often not taken into account. People were scared – even though this should be a place of safety for the community to use.”
She asked how the Police are using MP James Heappey’s new law that previously had passed parliament. Sergeant Eamer explained that Section 61 can be used to move them on when the go-ahead is given within the Police force. He also urged residents to log reports of travellers with the force on 101 to help build up a picture of the local impact.
Another resident asked about the number of official traveller transit sites in Somerset to reduce the number of visits to towns like Burnham. Somerset Council’s Chris Hall responded that “there are minimal numbers in Somerset – they are not abundant – and I don’t feel we will be able to introduce many locally. They can result in moving them from site to site.”
Asked about the ‘Lego-style’ concrete blocks at the entrances to the Cassis Close playing fields, he added that these are a “temporary measure before more permanent earth bunds get installed in the coming months.”
Another resident voiced concern about over emergency services access to the fields during any incidents on the playing fields. A further resident pointed out that the car park in Cassis Close is not secure and that more will be needed there.
A local home owner to the Cassis Close playing field spoke emotionally about the impact of the travellers on her lifestyle. “It was a very traumatic experience with people coming onto my land and demanding food and water. I felt so afraid and threatened in my own home and feel we need more protection.”
Sergeant Eamer added that the Police “fully understand that residents want to feel safe and everything is done to keep everyone safe.”
Another resident said he felt the issue seems to be “getting bigger and bigger every year” and that landowners are increasingly worried. Somerset Council’s Chris Hall emphasised that work is underway to discourage them from coming to Somerset and that various improvements to the process have been made this year.
Another resident asked what his rights are as a home owner if he challenges travellers on his property. Sergeant Eamer said residents should “never put themselves in danger and immediately call 999 if an incursion onto private land is underway.”
An angry resident said that the “Police are not fit-for-purpose at the moment” given the recent issues, adding: “We are utterly fed up with it – we don’t feel safe.”
And another resident added: “You are fobbing us off – they might be protected people but aren’t we protected? We are the ones paying to keep you in your jobs.”
Somerset Council’s Chris Hall responded: “We don’t have all the answers… there are limitations on us in what we can so, but fully understand how you feel and are improving the process.”
Another resident asked the Town Council Deputy Mayor, Cllr Sharon Perry, who moderated the meeting, whether Chris Hall and Sgt Eamer could be invited back in 3-4 months to give residents a further progress update, which was agreed those present.