Fenland Council warns of legal threat to land owner to remove 'unauthorised encampment' from 3 acre riverside site at Bedlam Bridge, March

PUBLISHED: 13:32 26 July 2019

Then and now: John Gawthorp (right) was evicted from his 'home' at Bedlam Bridge, March, and the crumbling remains burnt by enforcement teams hired by Fenland Council. Now more than 12 years later Mr Gawthorp could be faced with a legal bill if he's still owns the 3 acre site where an illegal encampment of caravans has moved in. Pictures; JOHN ELWORTHY

Then and now: John Gawthorp (right) was evicted from his 'home' at Bedlam Bridge, March, and the crumbling remains burnt by enforcement teams hired by Fenland Council. Now more than 12 years later Mr Gawthorp could be faced with a legal bill if he's still owns the 3 acre site where an illegal encampment of caravans has moved in. Pictures; JOHN ELWORTHY

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An illegal encampment of caravans on a three acre riverside site near March could be there for some time as council officials grapple with the issue of land ownership.

Fenland District Council warned the owner they must take action to remove the caravans - but who that owner is remains a mystery.

Two years ago Darren Cunningham told me he had bought the land, once owned by John Gawthorp, and set about turning it in an aquaphonics business to use the waste from farmed fish to grow plants.

But within weeks Mr Cunningham had gone, and it is not clear whether Mr Gawthorp -removed from the land 10 years ago earlier for illegally living there in a stable type home - retained the freehold.

Efforts to contact Mr Gawthorp today were unsuccessful but if he does still retain title to the land, the same council enforcement team that removed him could be challenging him to remove the current occupants.

A spokesman for Fenland District Council said: "We are aware of an unauthorised encampment at Bedlam Bridge in March and have assessed the site.

"As the land is in private ownership, it is the landowner's responsibility to take the necessary action to move the encampment on and undertake eviction procedures if necessary."

The spokesman added: "The landowner must do this within a reasonable period or risk facing action from the council due to the development being unauthorised."

Mr Gawthorp was removed from the site after a 'hit squad' of enforcers hired by Fenland Council burnt down his home as part of their removal tactics.

I stood with Mr Gawthorp and his wife as the council hired a demolition team to remove his home and evict him. Officials said the 'home' in which Mr Gawthorp lived crumbled during eviction and they had no alternative other than to set fire to the remains.

Mr Gawthorp spent years fighting the council after claiming he had verbal planning consent for the home but eventually he was forced to give up after he ran out of money to pursue the issue through the courts.

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Ironically it is the same continued enforcement on the piece of land that the council hopes will allow a speedy resolution to getting the current occupants off their riverside temporary home.

If Mr Gawthorp did sell it to Mr Cunningham, the council could face a longer process to find him; in conversations with him at the time he refused to say where he'd come from and moved out overnight without a forwarding address.

Mr Cunningham told me that he and a friend were "neither pioneers nor rebels since we don't exist. We are strawmen - legal fiction that means we don't exist."

Suggesting I looked up the definition of 'strawmen' he offered a view of life of living "not in a democracy but a dictatorship" and arguing that ownership of the land was fragile since he couldn't do what he wanted with it.

"You don't have rights, no legal rights so how can we plan anything when we don't exist," he said.

"The Crown owns this land - that doesn't necessarily mean you own it because you can't do what you like with it," he said.

Would he be staying long?

"Who knows we might buy another piece of land - or someone could buy this. £1 million perhaps?" he said.

Mr Cunningham said he was certain of one thing and that was the authorities didn't want him there "but all we want is to be left alone. They don't like us."

The caravans that arrived at the weekend are thought to be the same ones that had earlier been removed from a site in Creek Road, March.

If they are the same caravans - as seems likely- they had been stationed for some time at the old go-kart track in Creek Road, March. They were removed a week go, and the following day someone re-entered the site and started a fire. A number of gas bottles were lined up at Creek Road but were removed before what many thought was going to be an attempt to stage an explosion.

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