It is in the news that Veolia workers took and destroyed multiple tents and their contents in Central London. Is there a way that this could be legal?

About 10 tents were destroyed along with the personal belongings they contain as the Met issued a S35 dispersal order. The conditions for Surrender of property under that law are in section 37. The most relevant points are:

37 Surrender of property

(1)A constable who gives a person a direction under section 35 may also direct the person to surrender to the constable any item in the person’s possession or control that the constable reasonably believes has been used or is likely to be used in behaviour that harasses, alarms or distresses members of the public.

(5)If after the end of that period the person asks for the item to be returned, it must be returned (unless there is power to retain it under another enactment).

(7)If the person has not asked for the return of the item before the end of the period of 28 days beginning with the day on which the direction was given, the item may be destroyed or otherwise disposed of.

My reading of this is that this would not be covered for multiple reasons. The tents are not obviously "to be used in behaviour that harasses, alarms or distresses members of the public", the removal of the property was not done by a constable but employees of a private company and it is not going to be possible to return the property "after the end of that period" because it has been destroyed prior to the 28 days that are allowed.

In the absence of such a legal justification I would have thought this would be theft. Is that likely in this situation?

  • @ComicSansSeraphim This is not the police. This is Veolia, a private company working for University College London Hospital.
    – User65535
    Nov 14, 2023 at 14:45

2 Answers 2


Your question would be much improved if it acknowledged more prominently that Veolia is working as a cleaning and garbage collection company.

Coming in after the police forced homeless people to leave by M35, the dustmen would "find" things which were "obviously" of no value and "obviously" without a discernible owner, and disposed of them as garbage. That's what the London police suggests for finds of no value and no owner. I'm using the quotation marks because the dustmen were surely aware of the police action, but I don't see how M37 enters into it.

  • This doesn’t address any legal issues
    – Dale M
    Nov 13, 2023 at 11:34
  • 2
    @DaleM, "no value" and "discernible owner" are part of the guidance from London police on lost&found items.
    – o.m.
    Nov 13, 2023 at 16:21
  • Which is explained in the answer how?
    – Dale M
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:44
  • 1
    @DaleM, added. As you can see from my first paragraph, I thought the framing of the question was loaded and I thought that simply framing the issue as street cleaning would make clear that theft is entirely the wrong category. It may be a scandal if the police didn't give the homeless enough time to pack up, but putting that on the garbage workers is missing the point.
    – o.m.
    Nov 14, 2023 at 5:25
  • but what gives Violia the right to clear "trash" from the street?
    – Dale M
    Nov 14, 2023 at 9:29

Is it possible the destruction of tents in central London is legal?

Yes, it is possible the destruction of tents in central London is legal. There may be a legal justification that we are not aware of at the time of writing.

A possible legal justification:

In accordance with section 149 of the Highways Act 1980 the local authority might have issued a notice and successfully applied for a 'removal and disposal order'. Anecdotally that is not an uncommon procedure although I am unable to find statistics about it.

Removal of things so deposited on highways as to be a nuisance etc. s149 Highways Act 1980:

(1) If any thing is so deposited on a highway as to constitute a nuisance, the highway authority for the highway may by notice require the person who deposited it there to remove it forthwith and if he fails to comply with the notice the authority may make a complaint to a magistrates’ court for a removal and disposal order under this section.

(2) If the highway authority for any highway have reasonable grounds for considering—

(a) that any thing unlawfully deposited on the highway constitutes a danger (including a danger caused by obstructing the view) to users of the highway, and

(b) that the thing in question ought to be removed without the delay involved in giving notice or obtaining a removal and disposal order from a magistrates’ court under this section,

the authority may remove the thing forthwith.

(3) The highway authority by whom a thing is removed in pursuance of subsection (2) above may either—

(a) recover from the person by whom it was deposited on the highway, or from any person claiming to be entitled to it, any expenses reasonably incurred by the authority in removing it, or

(b) make a complaint to a magistrates’ court for a disposal order under this section.

(4) A magistrates’ court may, on a complaint made under this section, make an order authorising the complainant authority—

(a) either to remove the thing in question and dispose of it or, as the case may be, to dispose of the thing in question, and

(b) after payment out of any proceeds arising from the disposal of the expenses incurred in the removal and disposal, to apply the balance, if any, of the proceeds to the maintenance of highways maintainable at the public expense by them.

(5) If the thing in question is not of sufficient value to defray the expenses of removing it, the complainant authority may recover from the person who deposited it on the highway the expenses, or the balance of the expenses, reasonably incurred by them in removing it.

(6) A magistrates’ court composed of a single justice may hear a complaint under this section.

Another possible legal justification:

Section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972 enables district and borough councils to make byelaws for the good rule and government of the whole or any part of the district or borough and for the prevention and suppression of nuisances.

Section 150(2) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 amended the Local Government Act 1972 (offences against byelaws) to insert

237ZA Section 235 byelaws: powers of seizure etc

A byelaw made under section 235 may include provision for or in connection with—

(a)the seizure and retention of any property in connection with any contravention of the byelaw, and

(b)the forfeiture of any such property on a person's conviction of an offence of contravention of the byelaw.

This enables local authorities to attach powers of seizure and retention of any property (which could include tents and sleeping equipment) in connection with any breach of a byelaw made under section 235 and enables the courts to order forfeiture of any such property on conviction for contravention of any byelaw.

The City of Westminster introduced such a byelaw in March 2012 in relation to tents and other sleeping equipment in and around Parliament Square. See City of Westminster - Parliament Square byelaws.

Reference for second justification: Department for Communities and Local Government - Dealing with illegal and unauthorised encampments. Focuses on 'travelers' but it is more broadly applicable.

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