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Friday25 July 2014

What grounds are there for dissent?

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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of Freedoms Bill — entering its second reading in the Lords — allowing public protest on “quasi-public land” has been withdrawn.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.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Terry Farnham

    For goodness’ sake, what a load of facetious humbug. Journalism isn’t about connecting agitprop idealism with a handful of throwaway aphorisms (Eat, Pray, Shop... can you go much cheaper?). The stream of consciousness set out illogically in this opinion reaches no worthy conclusion, nor does it adequately signpost the direction of ‘thought’ being assembled during the process of typing.

    Rather than counting the words towards the magical threshold for publication, the author would do well to connect her arguments and present them in a way which communications some modicum of understanding not only of the depth of the subject, but also the mores of her target readership.

    Whilst it is very trendy to curry favour with what the author evidently perceives to be the body politic of student underdogs, does this demonstrate any understanding of the perpetrators of the protest and the origins of the crisis? The tent city at St Paul’s is not populated by the direct victims of the crisis and the neighbouring occupants in the City are not the sole bearers of responsibility for an impending disaster which will hit hardest neither the very rich nor the very poor, but the significant majority who have struggled to get themselves onto the lower rungs of the ladder by overstretching their creditworthiness.

    Please, keep it credible.

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  • Lighten up, Terry... BD is news and entertainment, not a PhD thesis.

    The protesters are drawn from a range of occupations, not just "direct vicims of the crisis". Would you have only accident victims protest against road accidents, for instance? Everyone is affected by this crisis. We have sat on our proverbials while the 1% wipe out our livelihoods and then buy stuff cheaper from countries that don't care about working conditions. I expect there are architects at St Paul's too.

    It is just exactly the "significant majority who have struggled to get themselves onto the lower rungs of the ladder" who have lost most in this country to the 1% of greedy bankers. The creation of additional liquidity out of thin air by banks - starting in the 1980s - is what has indebted the struggling majority, first allowing them to borrow far more, driving up house prices, then escalating the system until every adult in a household has to work harder and longer to pay off these paper loans, while simultaneously the 1% lobbied for governments to reduce infrastructure and welfare expenditure around the world.

    And when the whole banking pack of cards crashed to the ground, it's the struggling majority who end up paying back the money and in the process lining the 1%'s pockets again. The last 30 years have undone all the gains of the previous century in terms of pay and conditions.

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