Do the levellers know how the land lies?

The new eco-campaigners want power devolved to local level, but could end up with rule by nimbyism They are nice, peaceful and wouldn't harm a leaf of a Surrey rhododendron
Click to follow
Those deeply engrimed faces smeared with mud and woad, those matted dreadlocks, itchy just to look at, do not endear the eco- campaigners to middle England. Yet this new protest movement, The Land is Ours, believes it will draw in ordinary people as never before.

They are now settled into a ditch below the disused Wisley airfield in Surrey, where, if they were dressed like Venture Scouts, their camping skills would warm the cockles of Baden-Powell's heart. Their knowledge of country lore would be the pride of the Woodcraft Folk. Benders made of willow branches will take root and grow, leaving behind a permanent bower on the site, while their bread oven built of brick and mud will feed a multitude.

It is not, however, a romantic site to lay claim to. Approached down a slippery ploughed field spread with pig manure, downpours of rain make it a muddy spot that will look like Passchendaele before the week of occupation is over.

But the protesters are here because it was the least offensive camping site to occupy near St George's Hill, which they "invaded" on Sunday. St George's Hill, symbolic seat of land rights, is where the True Levellers set up their commune, also on an April Sunday morning: "to sow corn and to eat bread together by the sweat of our brows and lay foundations of making the earth a common treasury for all, rich and poor," wrote Gerrard Winstanley in 1649.

Present-day St George's Hill turned out to be one of the most dauntingly unlikely spots in Britain to ignite a land rights campaign. It is a high- security enclave, admission only by smart card, packed with mighty mansions called Camelot, Toad Hall and Summer Winds grouped around a golf club that looks like a fortified castle. Timidly declaring "The Land is Ours", the new-age Levellers planted a tree, watered it with white wine, sang a few songs and tiptoed back to their airfield, getting lost in the rain on the way. They are very nice, peaceful people and they wouldn't harm a leaf on a Surrey rhododendron bush.

Those gathered here are veterans of the M11, Twyford Down, Salisbury Hill and M65 motorway protests. They are the multitudinous groups that have sprung up to oppose the Criminal Justice Act, all brought together by telephone trees on mobile phones, faxes, Internet and pirate radio stations. The clean face (and therefore the spokesman) of the movement is George Monbiot, environmentalist, travel writer, fellow of Green College, Oxford: he looks like a young farmer in his green Barbour and wellies.

Their demands are wide-ranging and utopian. The idea of forming The Land is Ours was an accidental result of a meeting in Oxford attended by mainstream groups such as the Ramblers' Association, the National Trust, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Wild Life Trust. How far such organisations are willing to go with this radical agenda remains to be seen, but there are signs of a new militancy among their members.

Their easiest and perhaps most popular demand is for freer access to the countryside. They want all uncultivated and set-aside land to be open to people to walk or camp on. They hark back to olden days before enclosures, when people had common rights to use land owned by others to live on, graze or gather wood. No doubt the farmers and country landowners won't like any of this, but it may have plenty of popular resonance with townies, who increasingly want to use the countryside for recreation.

Planning laws are another target, discussed, oddly, as though they could be divorced from property ownership. "A handful of developers and landowners decide on our environment. People want housing but instead they get office blocks and multi-storey car parks," George Monbiot says. He points to the rapid loss of urban green spaces in the past decade, the selling-off by hard-pressed councils of playing fields, allotments and cemeteries. "Before you know it, you get a great big Tesco built on a site, without the local people having any say in the matter." Their manifesto demands that "local people have more control over the development done in their name".

This is where their argument becomes problematical. Who are the "local people" who should decide these things? As we come up to local elections, we are reminded that less than half the electorate bothers to vote at all. When they do, they express their opinions about national politics, not about local matters on their doorsteps of which they know little. Virtually no one knows the name of their local councillor, and if you try holding a local meeting you get the usual tiny gathering of oddballs or special interest groups, but rarely a body that looks convincingly like the true voice of "ordinary local people".

We resent the power of unseen hands to shape our environment, as we watch old landmarks fall, familiar streets change, great square blocks alter the skyline or the dimensions of a familiar and loved neighbourhood change beyond recognition. But it is harder to know exactly how "ordinary local people" should have their say.

A mega-supermarket will have done its market research and know that large numbers of people will choose to shop there. Should they be stopped by local people who don't want it on their patch? Already it is very difficult to build a hostel for ex-offenders or a community unit for the mentally ill because the voice of local people is often adamantly selfish. The "community" so much praised of late can turn quite nasty.

While the democratic deficit in local affairs is so marked, local protest groups may be the only way of arousing people from their resignation and apathy to seize back some power over their own local destiny. So this movement may catch a mood in the air, an urge to rebel against big battalions. The Land is Ours is a set of fundamentally romantic and nostalgic ideas so amorphous and unpolitical that it could absorb all kinds of local grievances. They believe the sort of people out campaigning for veal calves and lambs can be mobilised on local planning and land-use issues, and they may be right.

But in the long run, would we really want planning power to be devolved down to local level, as they demand? Dictatorship by nimby ("Not in my back yard") may be worse than what we have, however comforting and homely these campaigners make it sound.

Comically, they are themselves prone to a little nimbyism. The meeting in the big bender called to decide policy and allocate tasks was deeply concerned to keep things respectable. The day I visited, the meeting expressed indignation at a rumour that a rave was being organised right here on their site. No sound systems and no rave, they declared loudly, not in their back yard! George is capable of sounding like Akela when he says primly: "We certainly don't want a lot of lunched-out hippies here."