What grounds are there for dissent?
As protests fill the headlines, laws about quasi-public space leave little room for manoeuvre
The politics of eviction is big at the moment. Dale Farm, Occupy London, the protests for squatters’ rights raise different issues and garner different levels of public support. Whatever your attitude to any of these, conflicting rights of property, protest and access are more than usually charged.
Arguments against the tent city at St Paul’s have been fairly weak: not only the health and safety humbug, but also the threat to the Lord Mayor’s Show (“The Queen is not going to come… if she has to push through protesters”). Another claim was that the occupation was hitting local retailers, although this didn’t square with the story that the St Paul’s branch of Starbucks was doing a roaring trade keeping middle-class protesters in soy lattes and granola bars.
St Paul’s is a convenient (if highly symbolic) fall guy for Goldman Sachs in all this. If you really wanted to bring down capitalism, where would be the best place to pitch your tent? Anti-global campaigners can’t get within a fondue throw of Davos; and G8 meetings have found that distant golf-courses or — even better — islands out of earshot and pot shot of protest are the best places for dealing with capitalism’s various crises. Locally, those forced out of the housing market haven’t yet started occupying show flats, but this may be a protest to come.
The problem for the Church of England is that it is supposed to be subject to laws greater than those governing trespass; greater even than health and safety. And members are pretty sure they know what Jesus would do. The St Paul’s experience, the church bosses agree, should probably be something more than Eat, Pray, Shop.
Meanwhile an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill — entering its second reading in the Lords — allowing public protest on “quasi-public land” has been withdrawn. Leafleting at Westfield is not quite storming the Winter Palace, but the response from industry was to be expected. The British Property Federation took the view that protesters “have sufficient opportunity to make their case in the public realm”, while the British Retail Consortium chimed in that “there are plenty of open, public spaces which can be used for meetings, demonstrations and protests”.
But one of the points about the Occupy London protest is that there aren’t. Anna Minton argued in BD last week that the protest shows up how little “open public space” there actually is in the City of London (and Canary Wharf is worse given it doesn’t even have churches). It’s a quirk of the Wall Street protest that Zuccotti Park — a privately owned plaza — became the site for occupation because the planning gain trade-off with the city requires it to be open day and night.
With squatting of residential properties soon to be criminalised, there is real support (although not yet within government) for treating squatting of commercial properties in the same way. These conflicts are going to get worse.
At least the RIBA has allowed the Pavilion of Protest to be installed. It may not be enough — architecture students may have to take to their tents.