A WAR of words has erupted over an illegal traveller site amid claims council chiefs failed to use powers that could have stopped the unauthorised development in its tracks.

Basildon Tory councillor Malcolm Buckley warned the area could be saddled with another illegal settlement for years after Thurrock Council failed to issue a stop notice which would have made the continued development a criminal offence.

The site, next to Willow Cottage, in Southend Road, off Five Bells roundabout, in Fobbing, is just on the border of the two boroughs, meaning Thurrock Council is responsible for enforcing planning.

The apparent lack of action from Thurrock has given the families time to submit a planning application for a fully-fledged caravan site, which will now have to be considered before legal action can begin.

There are fears among residents and local politicians it could be expanded in the meantime.

Mr Buckley, who was at the forefront of planning the multi-million pound eviction of Dale Farm, in Crays Hill, said: “They should have learnt the lesson from Dale Farm, which grew when Basildon Council was too slow to respond.

“It appears Thurrock is now mimicking that action of ten years ago. It should have grasped the fact if you don’t act early it will be a much more expensive and lengthy battle to achieve compliance.”

The site was developed illegally over the Easter bank holiday weekend. No action was taken in the first two weeks, due to a row between Thurrock Council and Essex County Council’s traveller unit over who was responsible for the land.

Although up to 12 caravans have been on the site, the application is for four pitches.

The travellers want space for a mobile home, a separate touring caravan, utility block and vehicles on each pitch. They also want a stable area.

James Halden, Thurrock Tory councillor for Homesteads, said: “The whole thing is unacceptable. Legally, this is the right thing to do now, but the council should have acted much earlier, it should never have got to this stage.

“This is going to take a while.”

A Thurrock Council spokesman said: “The determination date for the planning application is August 5.

“The pending enforcement action will now be held in abeyance until a decision is been made on this application.”

If the council had served a stop notice halting development for a month it could have served others later, but the authority ruled this out.

The spokesman added: “The new temporary stop notice to prohibit residential occupation of a caravan lasts for 28 days, after which the breach can resume.

“This was not considered a long-term solution to permanently resolve this breach of planning control and was not thought to be effective in this instance.”