ONLY last week, the residents of Bishopsgarth in Stockton and, later, in Thornaby were shocked to wake up to an illegal encampment that had been formed overnight on their local green space.

With the help of local councillor, Hugo Stratton, the police and the council have moved the travellers on and an extremely swift clean-up followed. This has been a huge effort and our local council, police and others dealt with this more quickly than might be the case in other areas.

But the debacle has brought the restraints on authorities to effectively deal with illegal encampments into sharp focus.

It should be noted that, while a nuisance, and illegal, there are travellers who set up these sites who are well intentioned and respectful to the land that they occupy. However, the same cannot be said who inhabit these camps as they, in many instances, bring with them anti-social behaviour, damage and waste piled high on the land and surrounding area.

And, at the end of the day, illegal encampments are just that – illegal. Why we have allowed groups of people to occupy public or private land without consequence for so long is baffling.

The illegal occupation of a well loved, pleasant open space can cause great disturbance and distress, particularly to dog walkers, children and local people who suddenly find themselves unable to use a public space that their tax pays to maintain.

Many contacted me to say that they felt intimidated to lawfully use the areas affected. Others were concerned about the security of their homes. Some even contacted me complaining that human faeces were being disposed outside people’s properties and on public footpaths.

Having spoken to many residents, the frustration is clear. While the police and the council have limited powers to deal with unauthorised encampments, the incident has shown that these powers are, in many cases, simply not good enough. Rather than flex the ‘strong arm of the law’, officers could do little more than wag a finger in disappointment.

Cllr Stratton has quickly put preventative measures in place by placing boulders at the entrances of Bishopsgarth field, but there needs to be real consequences for those who choose to break the law in this way and real protection for landowners and residents.

We cannot live in a perpetual cycle of Groundhog Day and keep allowing groups to break the law and get away with it.

This is why I very much welcomed the passing of Part 4 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill through the House of Commons last week.

Through the introduction of real enforcement measures to deal with unauthorised encampments, this Bill will provide the reassurance and security that residents of Bishopsgarth, Thornaby and the nation as a whole have been crying out for.

This landmark Bill will finally make unauthorised encampments a criminal matter rather than a civil one, introducing a new criminal offence where a person resides on land without permission and has caused, or is likely to cause, significant harm, obstruction, harassment or distress.

Part 4 also gives the police brand new powers to enforce the law, allowing them to seize property and vehicles if occupants fail to leave without a reasonable excuse.

Illegal traveller encampments have been a real issue across this country. I’m glad that this Government has pushed ahead with these strong new measures. We owe it to our communities.