OWNERS of legal traveller pitches are to be pursued by Basildon Council to find out why they are empty for much of the year.

Campaigners say most of the 40 legal caravan pitches at Dale Farm, Crays Hill, are empty despite a dire shortage of traveller plots across Basildon.

Activists claim there is a huge shortage of authorised accommodation for travellers in the borough and argue it is why there was an explosion of unauthorised development.

Fifty-two pitches were built without planning permission next to the legal site at Dale Farm, about 25 at Hovefields, Wickford, and others dotted around the borough, from 2002.

Len Gridley, 50, whose home neighbours Dale Farm, says legal site occupancy levels suggest otherwise.

He said: “I took these aerial photographs, which show there are only about two or three pitches on the authorised half with any sign of occupation. The illegal site is crammed full. If there is a dire shortage, why are the legal ones not occupied most of the time and where are the owners?”

Ramsden Crays Parish councillors were told a number of the legal plots had been boarded up and secured by padlocks for many months.

At least six of the legal plots are owned by John Flynn, 41, also known as John Sheridan, who bought the Dale Farm scrapyard site in 2002 before splitting it up and selling to relatives who developed it illegally.

In his 2009 application to legitimise a brick-built bungalow on one of his plots – which remains undetermined by the council – there was evidence he splits his time between Germany, Wolverhampton and Crays Hill.

Occupancy levels also appear to have dropped since 2007, when council figures showed half the legal site empty when it carried out a count.

Council leader Tony Ball said his own view was that the situation at the legal site put a question mark over claims of drastic shortages.

He said: “We have no jurisdiction over privately-owned legal pitches, but will be writing to the owners, in the same way we would with long-term empty houses, to ascertain what they intend doing with these properties.”

Grattan Puxon, a campaigner for travellers, said the owners would spend much of the year travelling.

He said: “We are starting to see a trickle back before Christmas. I made enquiries and some of the plots also had to be vacated before the electricity company carried out work at some of the plots.”