Agenda item

Watton Horse Fair (Agenda item 15)

Report of the Executive Member for Governance (Lady K Fisher).

Minutes:

The Deputy Chief Executive presented the report.  The report had been considered at the Overview & Scrutiny Commission at its meeting on 4 September 2008.

 

The two main issues involved were as follows:

 

  1. The issue of the Watton Horse Fair.
  2. The issue of the stationing of caravans on a field which occurred at the time of and on land adjoining the site of the Horse Fair.

 

So far as the Horse Fair was concerned, it had been consistently stated that the Fair as presently comprised did not require planning permission; there were no contraventions of law and no licence was required.  Therefore, there was no question of any enforcement action by the Council as there was no contravention of any law.

 

With regard to the issue of the stationing of caravans, the report clearly stated there had been a contravention of law that was a criminal offence in that a field had been used without a Caravan Sites Licence.  There was evidence of this offence and the Council could conduct a prosecution. 

 

However, the report concluded that it was not in the public interest to pursue a prosecution and, even if the Council were to prosecute, it would have no impact on whether the Fair continued or not.  The other reason behind this decision was that it was likely to lead to a widespread relocation of caravans onto far less suitable land.  The reasons a prosecution was not considered to be in the public interest were as stated in the report at paragraphs 3.4.2, 3.4.3 and 3.4.4.

 

A Ward Member for Watton was in attendance for this item.  He thanked the Leader for bringing this matter forward to Cabinet.  He stated that the area in question was near to land designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and urged Members not to accept the Overview and Scrutiny Commission’s recommendation which was not to prosecute.  The Ward Member felt that the perception of the public would be that the Council was providing one law for the travellers and one for others.  By prosecuting, the Council would be sending out a message to other landowners that any illegal caravan sites would not be tolerated.  He again urged Members to prosecute as everyone that had been involved in the matter, who he knew, had agreed that a criminal act had been committed.

 

Mr Philips, who ran a legitimate caravan site on the adjoining land, spoke against the recommendation not to prosecute, as he felt this would set a precedent and would indicate to others that Breckland would not take action against similar offences.  He quoted a statement from the Overview and Scrutiny Commission meeting that the Executive Member for the Governance Portfolio had cited and requested that a further report be represented to the Commission without delay.

 

The Opposition Leader reminded Members of the annual aftermath of these fairs and of the damage done to the environment.  He did, however, accept part of the recommendation, to continue to monitor the site (see 2.2 of the report) but agreed with Mr Philips and the aforementioned Ward Member that prosecution proceedings should take place.

 

In response to the above comments, the Executive Member for the Governance Portfolio was unsure who Breckland Council would prosecute, if the Council decided to go down this route: the owner of the land or the owner of each caravan?

 

The Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Commission stated that the Council could not take out a blanket prosecution for something that might or might not happen.  There was undoubtedly a large amount of sympathy with the people who suffered whilst the fair was taking place but, on balance, it was felt that it was in the public interest not to prosecute, hence the recommendation from the Overview and Scrutiny Commission.

 

The Deputy Leader felt that what the Council had done had been completely consistent over the years.  This fair had taken place since 1971 and when referring to breaches of the law, in certain situations, the Council needed to take a practical response. 

 

The Deputy Chief Executive advised that there was no risk at all of a precedent being set as there had been no similar problems emerging from other areas over the years.  If Members decided that they wanted to pursue the prosecution route in the future then the Council would oblige; however, even if successful, this would not secure the cessation of the use of the land.  There was no continuing offence under the legislation and, should such use reoccur, it would require further gathering of evidence and further prosecutions, potentially culminating in the application by the Council to Court for an injunction.  For all these reasons, the Council’s advice was to leave it alone.

 

Options

 

1)           Prosecution for the offence of use of land for the stationing of caravans for human habitation without a licence under Section 1 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. Prosecution proceedings are taken for theoffence but, even if successful, this would not per se secure the cessation of the use of the land. There is no continuing offence under the legislation and, should such use recur (as seems likely), it would require further gathering of evidence and further prosecutions, potentially culminating in the application by the Council to Court for an injunction.  But to what ends? In this regard, please see Paragraphs 3.4.2, 3.4.3 and 3.4.4 of the report.

2)           No further action to be taken in respect of the use of the land for the stationing of caravans for human habitation.  The use is concurrent to the holding of the Horse Fair which as stated above is, and presently remains, a legal, non-licensable event occurring on two occasions per annum. The land is not used for the stationing of caravans at other times of the year. It is considered that such use will remain at historical levels. This will be monitored.

Reasons

 

1)           There was an insoluble conflict between two pieces of legislation preventing the granting of a licence under the 1960 Act. Whilst a potential way forward would be for the occupier of the land to apply for a Certificate of Lawful Use, thereby regularising the use of the land in planning terms, there was absolutely no requirement for him to make such an application.

2)           Given the present extremely limited use of the land for the stationing of caravans ( 4 nights per year ), if a licence were able to be granted, any conditions attached to such a licence would apply no greater requirements or constraints than those which currently are adhered to voluntarily, i.e. provision of sanitary accommodation and a supply of potable water. A licence would offer no further control of any event occurring beyond the site boundaries than those which currently exist through applicable legislation. This all being the case, it would be difficult to see what practically the actual issue of a licence would achieve over and above what was on site already - the current practices presently being satisfactory. 

3)           There was a considerable risk, given that the Fairs would continue, that a prosecution might lead to the withdrawal of the use of the land for the stationing of caravans, whilst between 30 and 50 caravans would still arrive in the vicinity at the time of the Fairs. These would then locate onto any available pieces of land with potential for trespass, road safety issues and anti-social behaviour. There was no doubt that considerable officer and constabulary time would be required in attempting to resolve those issues. It was the view of both the Norfolk Constabulary and officers of this Authority that the use of the field for the stationing of caravans was the most satisfactory solution in the circumstances due to the very short term nature of the event and accordingly, it was not seen by officers to be in the public interest to prosecute.

4)           Even if the Council was to commence prosecution proceedings against the owner of the site - as it was highly arguable by the Defendant that if he had continued with his application to the Council for a CLEUD, his application would ultimately have been granted - it was quite possible that these prosecution proceedings would result in an absolute discharge of the Defendant.

 

RESOLVED that

 

1)           the present legal position concerning the Watton Horse Fair be noted;

 

2)           Officers continue to monitor the site to ensure that any future changes in the nature, extent and use of the site be acted upon, where relevant; and

 

3)           no further action be taken in respect of the stationing of caravans on land at Thetford Road, Watton on 3rd and 4th May 2008.

Supporting documents: