SPRAWLING: An aerial view reveals the sheer scale of the caravan site in Buckles Lane
Buckles Lane, home to more than 1,000 people, has been allowed to expand on protected green belt land.
The site now has so many mobile homes that some are being rented out to eastern European gypsies and the settled community. Yet none of them should actually be living there due to planning regulations around traveller accommodation.
The private site, in South Ockendon, Essex, was originally granted permission for 50 caravan pitches for travelling showmen as winter bases back in the 1980s. However, the accommodation is now permanent and has been gradually expanded, often without planning permission.
A huge fire in the surrounding fields almost spread to the site last Sunday. Nearby residents claim Thurrock Council has “buried its head” over repeated planning breaches. They have now called for planning laws to be enforced.
It has got way too big. We have no idea who’s down there
Tony Jones, 48, said: “It has got way too big. We have no idea who’s down there. For years the council has let them get away with it.”
A woman in her 60s added:
“I have lived here more than 30 years and the showmen have never caused a problem. But now they are advertising caravans to anyone in the local paper for £100 a week.”
Last October Mark Coxshall, councillor for regeneration, branded the site – which has a network of streets and two shops – a “festering sore”.
He said: “After many years of turning a blind eye, the Conservative council served 45 planning convention notices on individual plots.”
It is understood the notices have not been complied with. At the same meeting last October, fellow Tory Ben Maney said the scale of development at the Buckles Lane site was “shocking”.
He said: “I am pleased the council is taking some action rather than hiding behind whatever regeneration or planning document is being drawn up.”
But he added: “For years, there has been a complete lack of parity with residents and businesses who are held to one set of rules while people in Buckles Lane create their own.
“The scale of development there in the green belt is simply shocking.”
Yesterday, Mr Coxshall admitted: “The site is massive. There are Romanian travellers there, Irish travellers and still a good number of showmen. We are trying to regulate it.”
Thurrock Council failed to respond to questions about the site. Government guidelines suggest traveller sites should be capped at around 15 pitches, with a mobile home and touring caravan on each. But Buckles Lane has at least 350 families crammed into 120 pitches, some of which have 16 mobile homes on them.
At its height, Dale Farm – a few miles away near Basildon – had 150 families living on 70 pitches, before 45 unauthorised pitches were bulldozed in a £7million operation.
A 2014 assessment carried out by Thurrock Council said: “Buckles Lane is the largest travelling showpeople site in Europe. It is becoming overcrowded.
“The demographic at the site is changing, with more east Europeans and fewer Irish and English people.”
Fairground boss John Biddall, 51, has lived at Buckles Lane for 19 years with no planning permission. He is on the Showmen’s Guild, and even stood as a Tory candidate in local council elections.
He said: “We are an upstanding community and the council has been good to us. After 10 years without planning, you get users’ rights.
“A lot – me included – have put mobile homes in and rented them out.
“The people work for me at weekends and are vetted. With terrible housing shortages they can’t build enough houses in Thurrock. We are doing a service.”
The Showmen’s Guild works to protect the rights of travelling showmen across the country and works with councils to create sites strictly for their use.
However, a spokesman said: “The site at Buckles Lane is neither operated nor under the control of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain. The majority of the occupants are not members of the Showmen’s Guild.”