A family of travellers currently staying in Matlock Bath are to be moved to Wirksworth.
During a marathon Derbyshire Dales District Council meeting last night (Thursday, February 22), councillors grudgingly agreed to move the family, which is registered as homeless, to a site bordering Stoney Wood, close to Middle Peak Quarry.
The district council has a legal responsibility under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 (which came into force in April last year).
It must carry out prevention and relief work for anyone threatened with homelessness within 56 days, and provide them with a “suitable offer of accommodation”.
After last night’s decision, the council aims to move the family to land at the Stoney Wood car park site in Middleton Road (B5023) by Friday, March 8.
Stoney Wood is a site owned by the district council and is a public open space and wooded area, well-used for picnics and by walkers.
Stoney Wood Group – run by volunteers – maintains the site. Chris Bristow, speaking on behalf of the group, feared that rare wild flowers and orchids would not survive the approved traveller encampment.
The car park site lies close to a number of houses in Cromford Road and The Lime Kiln pub.
The travellers would be allowed to stay there, on the ‘temporary tolerated site’ for six months, after which point the council would meet again to make another decision.
Councillors apologised to the residents of Wirksworth for having to make the decision, commenting that they ‘wouldn’t wish it on anyone’.
Before then, the council says, it must carry out some preparations such as trimming trees and moving boulders. Portaloos and bins would be provided and fencing could be put in place to mark the area that has been designated.
The family is known to include an elderly person with a series of complex care needs, and a teenage boy who is ‘mentally disadvantaged’.
Councillors feared that the traveller family would act as a ‘honey pot’ or a ‘magnet’ for other travellers, wherever they were moved and a permanent site was needed as soon as possible.
In last night’s meeting, Tim Braund, the authority’s head of regulatory services, said that another traveller family, which is related to the family which the council is already responsible for, has made an application to be registered as homeless.
If this is approved, the council would also need to find this additional family a site.
The district council is currently carrying out a search on the open market – to buy a site to turn into a permanent traveller pitch. A report on this search is ‘imminent’.
It has ruled out all land it currently owns and is owned by the county council as unsuitable.
A site which the district council had been on the brink of securing was at Watery Lane in Ashbourne, but this is off the table after Derbyshire County Council (DCC) suspended all land purchases around the town.
This is so it can pursue plans for an Ashbourne Bypass.
Coun Mike Ratcliffe called that decision a ‘partisan political manoeuvre’.
Meanwhile, Coun Garry Purdy commented that after three years debating over the Watery Lane site, the ‘rug was pulled from under us by DCC’.
Paul Wilson, the council’s chief executive, said: “This authority, for the last 30 years has not met the needs of travellers.
“We cannot keep evicting them without an alternative site to house them on.
“We are not looking for a quick fix, it is not a quick fix situation, but we have an immediate issue now.”
Councillors said that the traveller issue was “like a merry go round or a headache that keeps coming back”.
In December, the district council approved a plan to make the overspill car park at Matlock Bath Railway Station a ‘temporary tolerated’ site for travellers until March.
At that time, they had been camped on the Fishpond Meadows car park in Ashbourne town centre.
Since the family moved to Ashbourne, with two caravans, they have been joined by further traveller groups.
The meeting was told that there have been up to nine caravans on the site, some laying out artificial grass to act as a garden.
The council has taken legal action against the additional travellers.
Michael Wilderspin, a member of Matlock Bath Parish Council, Robin Flewitt, chairman of the Matlock Bath Traders’ Association, Julie Ritchie, a gift shop owner speaking on behalf of Matlock Bath businesses, and Glenys Allen, on behalf of Matlock Bath residents, gave passionate speeches about the impact of the travellers camping in the town.
They said that local trade has plummeted since the travellers were moved to onto what was the coach park, instead of the intended overspill site known as Tinti’s Yard.
After the quiet winter period, they said that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ used to be February half term – but this has not been the case, with coach companies reportedly turning round and leaving when they get to the village and warning others not to visit.
There are said to be nine empty shops in the town and traders are finding it difficult to ‘make ends meet’.
Residents are said to be compassionate and supportive towards the traveller family and their plight, but have been rocked by threats of violence and fear for their safety.
They commented that one cafe owner was threatened by travellers who said they would smash her windows.
Another, trader, who works at The Midland, a pub in the town, was abused.
There were also reports of an attempted burglary at the rifle range with suspects trying to steal propane tanks.
Councillor Garry Purdy commented that the police could not be relied upon to intervene, claiming they had responded to threats of violence as not being of a high priority.
He said police have left Matlock Bath residents feeling like they have no support.
Councillors voted to have the authority’s chief executive write a letter to Derbyshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Hardyal Dhindsa, to raise concerns over the lack of action.
Coun Joyce Pawley said: “Our bricks and mortar families feel more left out than our traveller family.
“I know how difficult life is for the family, it has been going on for years and this council as still not found a permanent site. We are now in panic mode, making decisions with half the facts.
“Our residents are being disturbed, upset and terrorised and the family too is being repeatedly disrupted.”
She moved a recommendation, which was unanimously approved, to contact companies capable of making upgrades at car parks across the district to install barriers and prevent unauthorised entry.
The Wirksworth location to which the travellers would now be moved is ‘not perfect’ but is seen to be the most appropriate given the ‘urgent need’ to move the family.
A report states: “It is a site which would have minimal impact upon the council’s operations, would not have a detrimental impact upon neighbouring residential amenity and affords a degree a degree of safety and security for the traveller family.
“Whilst the site would not be appropriate as a permanent solution, pending the identification of a permanent site, it is considered to be the most appropriate solution as a temporary tolerated site.”
Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service