Cllr Jonathan Glanz represents West End Ward on Westminster City Council and is the Council’s Lead Member for Broadband and Connectivity
If somebody pitched a tent on the front lawn of your home, you would be within your rights to remove them from your property immediately as they would be trespassing. If somebody pitches a tent on the Public Highway, as we have seen examples on Regent Street, Piccadilly and Whitehall, the Local Authority has no power to remove them without first serving 30 days’ notice on the occupants. That is the minimum requirement, and it is only then that a Court Order can be made to remove the tent. The process therefore often takes considerably longer.
The Court Order applies not to the individual within the tent, nor to the tent itself, but to the specific location of the tent at the time. If the tent has been moved, even by just a metre or so, the Order is invalid, and even when a valid Order is obtained, the recipients, fully wise to the current law, can move the tent and the whole process starts again.
The tents provide immediate shelter for rough sleepers, but they also provide a space where they can undertake activities unseen from the prying eyes of neighbours or law-enforcement officers.
Tents pitched in Soho have frequently been used as drug dealing points, for drug consumption, prostitution, and other crimes. As they amount to a private space or dwelling, neither the police nor the Council can require the occupants to open the tent flap and reveal the activity within without a warrant.
Those occupying the tents often use the nearby street for dumping, as a lavatory, and a queue for drug users or prostitutes’ punters. You can imagine the frustration of living above or besides such activity and having no effective remedy.
This is part of the increasing challenges faced by Local Authorities and police with rough sleeping in our city centres. Westminster spends over £7 million per year reaching out to rough sleepers in an attempt to bring those living on the streets indoors where they can receive medical attention and help to start rebuilding their lives.
Westminster has always had more than its fair share of people living on the streets. Historically, it was Meths drinkers in and around the Strand, many of whom suffered from substance misuse or mental health, who lived (and in many cases prematurely died) on our streets.
However, the new tent-dwelling cohort are part of a significant Roma population who have come to London simply to beg and indulge the generosity of the resident and visitor population. Whilst many visitors salve their conscience by thinking they are helping the individual concerned, those who understand the problems know that these people, often victims themselves, are part of sophisticated organised crime.
Literally, millions of pounds per year are taken out of the West End economy by such activity. Unfortunately, little, if any of this, goes to help the individuals concerned, who are merely pawns in the organised crime game. They themselves are the victims of modern slavery as they are forced to beg on the streets, and then account for their monies to their gang masters. Those giving money believe they are helping the individuals concerned to buy a sandwich because their piece of cardboard, provided to them at the beginning of their shift, says “I’m hungry”. In fact, they are providing money which is more likely to go to fund the next Range Rover for Mr Big back in Romania.
The agencies involved in seeking to help rough sleepers and the police will tell you that it is not unusual for these beggars to take £500 or £600 cash per session in central London. Indeed, a Senior Police Officer told me that he recently arrested one who had £6,500 in cash on them.
Roma beggars now live in our parks, squares, subways and doorways. Men and (even heavily pregnant) women often spend their nights on the streets and then await their gangmaster who will allocate spots to them and organise their shifts and arrange to collect their monies afterwards. They are extremely well-organised.
This behaviour has now has become further entrenched with the tents. Last week saw a huge operation to clear 15 tents from the central reservation of Park Lane and a similar number from Hanover Square, where Crossrail is building one of its Bond Street Stations. Needless to say, they are already back. Residents and businesses are at their wits’ end, complaining that neither the police nor the Council have sufficient resource to undertake the necessary enforcement, but the fundamental problem lies elsewhere.
As Romania is in the European Union, its citizens are free to travel, and free to work in the UK. They claim to be here exercising their Treaty Rights, and the Courts have decided that they have a right to be here, even when they have no intention of seeking work (presumably decided by a judge who does not live in the West End). Consequently, they have been further emboldened by this process, and we must now, as we leave the European Union, revisit the Legislation, so that we can have appropriate enforcement action coordinated between UK Borders Authority and with the full support of the Council, police and Home Office to ensure that this arrangement, facilitating and providing monies for organised crime comes to a swift end.
I am therefore calling on Priti Patel to ensure that Local Authorities be given the necessary powers to deal with such problems. Whilst this problem is by no means confined to the West End or indeed London, without the necessary powers both the police and the Council struggle to make any effective progress.
The idea that tents on the Public Highway require 30 days’ notice for their removal is nonsensical. Just as you would be entitled to remove a tent from your front lawn with immediate effect, Local Authorities must be given the same power to deal with tents on the Public Highway.
I am also calling on Patel to prioritise the necessary legislation to ensure that people who come to the UK as part of an organised begging gang can be swiftly and effectively repatriated.
Without such powers, our city centres, already blighted by begging, antisocial behaviour, and criminality will become no-go areas for residents, law-abiding citizens, and visitors.