Occupy London protesters are ready to leave St Paul's early next year in exchange for a scaled-down presence outside the cathedral and a "symbolic tent" within. The end of a saga that polarised the Church of England, and saw the hundreds campaigning against corporate greed championed and vilified in equal measure, began last night when protesters started debating the issue.
While the shape and timing of any withdrawal still needs to be ironed out in a meeting with the cathedral this week, there was "widespread consensus" on the move, a source within the site in the City of London said.
It comes as a High Court challenge to evict the 150 or so camped demonstrators begins today, with protesters believing that an exit on their own terms will cement goodwill for a movement that has resonated with many. The source said: "There is widespread consensus that resources at the camp are stretched, and concerns about the long-term viability of the site. We are looking at restructuring and how best to use our other sites."
Any compromise would allow the Church to save face after a crisis which saw the cathedral close for the first time since the Blitz and the resignation of the Dean of St Paul's and its canon chancellor, Giles Fraser. It would allow demonstrators, who have been at the site since 15 October, to claim a moral victory in their fight with the City of London Corporation (CoLC).
Dr Fraser resigned when the cathedral's chapter voted to pursue a legal challenge that could have seen protesters dragged from the church's steps. His decision helped legitimise protesters in a debate that pitted God against Mammon and drew in the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The protesters began discussing the proposal to leave in working groups last night and a vote is expected within days. One sticking point that could still hamper any exit could be a refusal by the CoLC to allow any tent on its highways, including one stationed outside St Paul's with the cathedral's blessing.
The CoLC said while it welcomed any move to vacate the site, it was still looking for the court case to clarify issues of highways and planning. A spokesman said: "Obviously we welcome any news protesters are vacating the site. We do not want to stop them demonstrating but we object to the tents, which breach planning and highway laws."
Should the CoLC win, a special meeting of its planning committee on 30 December could set a date for eviction.
Occupy London, which has also taken possession of an unused UBS office in Hackney, still maintains a site at Finsbury Square, Islington, which is not under threat of eviction.
But it is at St Paul's where the group has attracted headlines, with campers accused of defecating in the cathedral grounds, leaving tents unoccupied and even causing an HIV scare.
However, demonstrators were encouraged by high-profile support from Jesse Jackson and Vivienne Westwood among others. Naomi Colvin, of Occupy London, said the group had succeeded in stirring debate following multibillion-pound payouts to failing banks. She said: "A lot of people here are working incredibly hard, and is it the best use of their time? St Paul's is an unbelievable location that has allowed us to talk to the Church of England. We want it to remain the headquarters of the movement and make it our embassy."
In a document, which The Independent has seen, the cathedral offered protesters a "limited presence with an information tent ... outside the cathedral". The cathedral is also understood to have offered to let the campers meet on the steps and have an art work or symbolic tent within the church.
Occupy London, which intends to remain at the site over the Christmas period, and the CoLC have been involved in an escalating war of words.
In court today, the CoLC will use highways and planning laws to argue protesters should be evicted. It claims the site has become a magnet for the vulnerable, poses a health risk and has affected trade – claims protesters deny.
A CoLC spokesman said that between 15 October and 10 November, the cost of policing and servicing the site was £475,000. Some £100,000 has been spent on legal costs, with another £100,000 set aside.
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