HUNDREDS of travellers today won a High Court battle against immediate eviction.

A judge ruled that the families should be allowed to stay on at Dale Farm, Crays Hill, and Hovefields, Wickford, for the time being while concerns about their needs and welfare are further investigated.

Mr Justice Collins, sitting at the High Court in London, said decisions to evict taken by Basildon District Council in December last year cannot stand.

Aware that his decision might cause controversy, the judge said he was conscious that the council might feel the delay in carrying out the evictions was to be deprecated.

"Nonetheless, the decision, whichever way it goes, must be based on consideration of all that is relevant," the judge ruled.

Moves to remove the travellers, involving the issuing of enforcement notices, have been going on for several years.

Last December, the council decided to use section 178 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to enter the land and enforce compliance with the orders.

The judge said there could be no doubt that the families could not remain where they were and the time must come when they would have to leave, "whether voluntarily or by means of forcible eviction."

He warned them: "Despite the difficulties they face and the absence at present of sufficient sites to meet their needs, travellers and gypsies must appreciate that the law will not tolerate developments without planning permission being obtained, particularly on Green Belt land, and will be likely to uphold enforcement action where the individual circumstances of those affected have been properly considered against the harm to the environment and to relations with the community."

But it was necessary "for all relevant matters to be properly taken into account" and that had not occurred in the Basildon case.

It was impossible not to have some sympathy with the problems created for gypsies and travellers by the lack of sufficient sites to cater for their proper needs.

The judge said the approach to their "needs" taken by Basildon council had been "too restrictive".

He also did not think the duty owed by the local authority to the travellers under homelessness laws had been sufficiently dealt with.

Further consideration should be given to whether any alternative sites could be found in the district, and whether any families could be allowed to remain "for the time being".

The judge said: "Finally, I think that the approach has been that the sites should be cleared, rather than a consideration of whether there are any individual families whose circumstances are such, whether because of serious ill-health or the needs of their children, that in their individual cases eviction would be disproportionate."

Richard Sheridan, president of the Gypsy Council, welcomed today's ruling, saying: "It is a victory. We have won round one, and we are hoping to get justice at the end of the day.

"As British citizens we are entitled to live like everybody else.

"Keeping us on the road costs £18m a year. The cost of eviction would be £1.9m, with court costs of nearly a million pounds.

"Leaving us where we are will save the Government millions of pounds, and our kids will be able to be educated and our families live in decent sanitary conditions."