£3m clean-up bill for illegal traveller camps...but Leeds is winning its pitch battle

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Leeds taxpayers have forked out more than £3million in a decade to clean up and remove illegal traveller camps, new figures reveal.

But despite the massive bill, the city has made huge leaps in its recent work to reduce the costs - and to provide desperately needed legal caravan pitches which would also reduce the burden on the public purse.

Trailblazing work in the city has seen incidents of illegal camps slashed by almost 60 per cent overall. There has not been a single report of an unauthorised camp since last May - and the city was recently recognised nationally for its pro-active efforts.

However there are fears that a recent Government blocking of plans for an expanded permanent site in Cottingley Springs could set the city back.

New Leeds City Council papers reveal that since 2003, the average annual cost to the city of evicting traveller families was £255,000, with a peak of £325,000 in 2010,

“The city has experienced significant challenges in recent years relating to the cycle of unauthorised encampments and eviction,” the report says.

Last week, it emerged that communities secretary Eric Pickles had blocked council proposals to expand the permanent Cottingley Springs Gypsy and Traveller site by 12 pitches.

Helen Jones of Leeds GATE, an advocate for travellers’ rights and a key intermediary between families and the authorities, hit out at what she claimed was the minister’s “passionate prejudice” and waste of public money.

She said that the city’s “excellent” and “pro-active” recent work - which included the establishment of a temporary travellers’ site on derelict land in Kidacre Street - had been set back in one respect, as Government foot-dragging had led to Leeds losing a key grant.

However she also welcomed the fact that the council - with whom she had previously locked horns on many occasions - “can get on with identifying sites for the 25 pitches the city needs”.

“The council has been proactive in working with us and looking for alternatives,” she said.

“What we have in Leeds is now recognised nationally as best practice.

“We are coming up with solutions that work. We are proving that the problems are not insurmountable and that gypsy travellers are not demons that cannot be negotiated with.

“Yes we are not getting the 12 pitches at Cottingley Springs but Leeds is a great city and we can deal with things ourselves.”

She especially praised the authority’s ‘negotiated stopping’ strategy and the success of a social contract of good behaviour signed with traveller families.

Leeds City Council’s executive member for neighbourhoods, planning and personnel councillor Peter Gruen said there had not been a single unauthorised encampment of Leeds-based travellers since last May.

“In terms of all encampments, we have seen a 57 per cent reduction compared to the previous year,” he said.

“This is testament to a lot of hard work by the council liaising with the Gypsy and Travelling community to create the temporary site at Kidacre Street to help break the cycle of encampment and eviction.

“We have devised and are following a clear policy which has been highlighted nationally for its success.”

He added: “In light of last week’s disappointing decision by the government, we are continuing to assess our options regarding Cottingley Springs.”