Alok Sharma, Member of Parliament for Reading West, chaired a meeting he organised for residents of Tilehurst and Kentwood at Tilehurst Methodist Church to discuss policing matters on 12th July. Thames Valley Police and Reading Borough Council were in attendance to answer questions on law and other issues, especially regarding unauthorised encampments.
Joining Alok on the panel were Superintendent Stan Gilmour of Thames Valley Police as well as Sarah Gee, Head of Housing and Neighbourhoods, and Anthony Brain, Community Safety and Enablement Manager, at Reading Borough Council. Tilehurst Councillor Helen Manghnani and Kentwood Councillor Raj Singh were also in attendance along with over 100 local residents.
Alok organised the meeting after being contacted by local residents who were concerned about anti-social behaviour in the area. The most prominent topic of discussion was that of the unauthorised encampments that have recently appeared around Reading West. Residents shared their frustration at the inconvenience and harassment they have experienced as a result of these encampments, with many locals relaying that they feel that there is one law for law-abiding local residents and another for those participating in illegal encampments. Residents also relayed their disappointment over the speed of response to individual incidents in some cases.
There were four main issues which arose from the meeting: use of current legislation and further strengthening on legislation to tackle illegal encampments, preventative measures, procedures used in other parts of the country to deal with illegal encampments and reporting by the public of incidents and use of private CCTV.
Under the current law there are circumstances in which the police can deal with illegal encampments as a matter of immediacy and evict individuals from a site, using their Section 61 powers, without landowners first having to apply to the Courts. Alok has asked the Chief Constable to ensure that his local officers make full use of these powers where appropriate and has committed to a follow-up meeting with Thames Valley Police to discuss this further, as well as ways in which the Police can engage better with the local community.
Reading Borough Council representatives addressed concerns over unauthorised encampments appearing again by explaining that the Council are working to secure several previously affected sites in Reading from further traveller incursions.
A resident at the meeting noted that the city of Portsmouth has a zero tolerance policy towards illegal encampments, and Alok has written to Portsmouth City Council, and the Chief Constable of Hampshire Constabulary, to ask how they deal with illegal encampments to see if there are lessons to be learned here locally in Reading West.
The panel also reiterated that all incursions should be reported to Reading Borough Council and Thames Valley Police at the first available opportunity so that they can compile their community impact reports.
One of the questions raised at the meeting related to the use of CCTV footage by the public as a way of gathering evidence for the Council and Police. Guidance for domestic CCTV is available via the gov.uk website.
Alok Sharma said: “My view is clear – the law needs strengthening and trespass needs to be made a criminal offence. This is the case in the Republic of Ireland and we need this change here. It will deter illegal encampments as the individuals concerned will understand they will face criminal law sanctions, rather than civil ones, right from the start. That is why I launched an Illegal Encampments Petition which calls for a strengthening of the law. If you support this petition but have yet to sign it, I would encourage you to complete it here:
I made it clear at the meeting that I will campaign for a change in the law and I intend to make this case to the current set of Ministers responsible for this area of policy.”
Photo: Alok Sharma MP addressing residents of Tilehurst