Stand firm in the battle for Hockley wood

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY AFTERNOON I was sitting in a wood in Essex. The last of the sunshine struck gold in the trees' russet leaves and the smoke from a little wood fire stung my eyes. In front of me sat Christiana Tugwell, "teenage eco-warrior", as she has been dubbed by the newspapers.

She's an impressively poised and articulate 15-year-old, dressed in the eco-uniform of dreadlocks and bobbly cardigan and muddy boots. Her full-time home, work and education is now in this camp in this wood, and you can't doubt that she's learning a lot more than she ever would in school. Even her new-found fame hasn't gone to her head. "Celebrity status!" she says with a sigh and a shrug when a local resident turns up carrying yet another article about her in yet another local newspaper.

She started this protest, that has now grown to this set of benders [tents], these treehouses, and the sound of digging way beneath us. It calls itself CASH, or the Campaign Against Silly Homes, and it has a clear-cut aim: to stop this wood in Hockley being dug up.

Hockley was once a village, and is now one of those indeterminate suburban- style towns on the commuter belt in Essex. One day in 1995 residents of Hockley woke up to find that a property developer called Countryside Residential had applied to develop one of their most precious spaces, 11 acres of woods and ponds and scrub where they had got used to walking their dogs and picking blackberries and letting their children run wild. If nothing happened to stop the development, the brambles and ponds and badger sets in the wood were about to be bulldozed. And in their place would go up about 60 luxury houses, each with five or six bedrooms and space to park a couple of cars.

When most people hear about things like that, they fire off letters to local councillors and newspapers and solicitors and MPs. Christiana and her family and neighbours tried that for a couple of years. And they got nowhere. So over the summer holidays Christiana, inspired by what she had heard of the eco-protests elsewhere in Britain, set up a camp in the wood with a few other teenagers.

"I wanted it to be a proper protest, but I didn't know what to do," she tells me. "Then a couple of experienced people joined us. They started digging in and building treehouses. Then it just grew."

Most of the people who now live at this camp are veterans of previous protests, but some of them come originally from Hockley or the surrounding area. One of the older camp-dwellers, who calls himself Ed, describes himself as the "best tunnel builder in Britain", and claims that the tunnel system they have laid on in Hockley over the last couple of months will be the hardest that an eviction has ever had to deal with.

Although I don't have much experience of tunnels, when they take me to see it I am prepared to believe Ed's words. The tunnel top is set in concrete, with a door that locks on with steel cables, and the tunnel has ventilation and power and storage space for weeks of food supplies. "This tunnel is a hard bastard," says Ed proudly. "And the developers should know that."

But the camp is not just based on the passions of a handful of protesters. It is also backed by the local residents. While I sit there through the afternoon, people from the surrounding area keep coming through the trees with gifts of food and drink and clean socks. I chat to one of them, Pat, who is part of the campaign even if she doesn't camp out: with other residents she is applying to get the wood recognised as a village green. "I have yet to meet a resident of Hockley who is in favour of this development," she says stoutly.

It's impossible to know what the outcome of this protest will be, but one thing is for sure, the issues raised by the Hockley wood protest aren't confined to Hockley. If they were, the local authority and the property developer could afford to laugh the whole thing off as the games of a few disaffected kids and the nimbyism of a handful of middle-aged residents. But the issues are a lot more far-reaching than that.

No one can doubt that there is a housing crisis in the south-east. You might just read about it in the newspapers: "Professor Stephen Crow says that 1.1 million homes must be built in the south-east by 2016", "75 per cent of new homes may be built on greenfield land". Or you might be living it out. Maybe you earn more than the average wage but you still can't afford to buy anything but a shoebox-sized flat two hours away from where you work. Or maybe you're looking for somewhere to rent, and in the meantime you're staying with all your friends in turn until their patience wears out. Or maybe you're living in a council flat in a block that is so filthy and disgusting, littered with hypodermic syringes, that you're scared for your children, but you can't leave because the council can't offer you anything else.

If you are living out the housing crisis in your own life, you might have started to wonder whether woods - even pretty woods like this one in Hockley, with its birches and badger sets and brambles - might be luxuries that the south-east can no longer afford. You might sympathise with Christiana and her friends but feel that realism should win through, and that you'd love to get your hands on one of those new houses.

But the way out of the crisis isn't going to come from developments like the one proposed for Hockley. In fact the proposed development here shows how we got into this mess and how, unless a radical rethink occurs, we will never get out of it. Hockley could do with some new houses, but it should be housing aimed at local people who shop and work in the area, not houses that only people making the daily commute to the M25 in their big cars can afford.

Development purely for luxury housing, rather than a mixture of living and working and retail spaces, only encourages the whole of the south- east to turn itself into a residential suburb of London, with all the transport problems that involves.

In this overcrowded area, all development should be high-density, not sprawling estates of detached houses. And until the land that nobody cares much about is used up, why should the few green spaces that are so dear to people's hearts be tarmacked over? Christiana and her friends are eager to tell me about the brownfield sites in the village - like the old railway sidings - that could be redeveloped, rather than this wood that lies around us, dusky and full of birdsong in the autumn afternoon.

It's not as though these issues haven't been carefully laid out for policy- makers to chew on. The report of Richard Rogers' Urban Task Force, Towards an Urban Renaissance, explained the incontrovertible fact, that the south- east needs more planning, not less, if we are to find any kind of a way out of the current mess. The task force advocated high-density developments with mixed social and market housing and commercial as well as residential use. But while the Government shuffles around, wondering what it can take on from the report without involving itself in too much effort or expenditure, developers are pressing on with whatever will get them the most money. And so Christiana and her friends will go back to their tunnels and keep on digging.