FAR fewer traveller caravans are pitching up on unauthorised sites in Dorset than a decade ago, figures reveal.

Members of the Traveller community have accused the Conservative Party of treating them as “political footballs” for pledging to “tackle unauthorised traveller camps”, despite a decline in their number across England.

Councils carry out a count of caravans on traveller sites twice a year to provide a snapshot of the numbers in permitted and unpermitted spots.

It includes those lived in by Gypsies and Travellers, as well as non-traditional groups who live in moveable homes.

Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government data shows that 49 traveller caravans were on sites without planning permission in Dorset in July, down from 187 counted in July 2009.

The total number of caravans in the area also dropped over the period, from 317 to 118.

This means that 42 per cent were in unauthorised locations this year.

Of those on unpermitted land, 11 were not tolerated, meaning active efforts were being made to move them on.

The trend in Dorset was the same across England, where 3,082 caravans were on unauthorised sites – 17 per cent fewer than a decade previously.

This was despite the total number of dwellings increasing by a third, to around 23,000, meaning the vast majority had planning permission.

The Conservative Party has pledged in its election manifesto to “tackle unauthorised traveller camps” by giving the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers on unauthorised encampments.

The document adds: “We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.”

The Traveller Movement, a charity that fights discrimination against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, says the national figures show that “only a tiny minority of Travellers reside on unauthorised land”.

“Why is this Government pouring so much money into this issue when it would cost far, far less to provide sites?” asked Yvonne MacNamara, the group’s chief executive.

“While local authorities pump millions annually into removing unauthorised encampments, the other issues facing communities are ignored.

“This includes high rates of anxiety and suicide, poor health outcomes, school exclusions and cuts to Traveller education services.

“In criminalising the most marginalised and vulnerable members of the community, we risk pushing them over the edge. It solves nothing.”

Ms MacNamara added Gypsies and Travellers were being treated as “political footballs once again”.