England's gentle revolutionaries

The squatters of Wandsworth know they will be defeated eventually in their plan to keep the land for the people, but their vision may carry us into the next century, muses Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
At the front of Room 607 in the Royal Courts of Justice sat Deputy Master Burton surrounded by calf-bound legal volumes and lawyers in their quotidian pinstripes. He was there to rule on an application by Guinness for an eviction order, to clear the derelict land where a distillery stood 21 years ago, but which now is a flattened concrete expanse sprouting with knotgrass and wild buddleia shrubs. At the back of his court sat representatives of the motley parliament who have occupied it under the banner of an organisation that calls itself The Land is Ours. They were familiar from newspaper photographs of Newbury bypass protests or New Age traveller solstice gatherings on Salisbury Plain; their uniform was home-knit, rainbow-coloured, matted, doubled-dredded and unkempt.

The Deputy Master ruled for Guinness, but the rest of his remarks were drowned by mutters of "shame" and ironic laughter from those he had described as "this band of reformers". The junior judge arched his eyes in mock bewilderment. "Cheerio," one bobble-hatted protester said jauntily to the judge as he left. At the back a woman wearing a crocheted pastel beret began to pick at a guitar which was painted all over with Romany designs. "Now before we go out, remember, big smiles for the press - this is not a defeat," said the only besuited campaigner, George Monbiot, as he led the group out of the court to be greeted by the English establishment's most effective anti-protest weapon, a steady shower of rain.

It would be easy to deride. A number of newspapers have done exactly that in the three weeks since the group began its occupation of the land at Gargoyle Wharf in Wandsworth, south London. Lurid reports have told how the spongeing squatters, with their malodorous manners and messy New Age metaphysic, have moved onto the 13-acre site that has stood desolate since it was bulldozed seven years ago. The owners, Guinness, now want to sell it to Safeway for a supermarket, petrol station and massive car park with luxury riverside apartments. The landgrabbers want low-cost housing for locals, a public park and an exemplar eco-village to show how sustainable technology can work in inner-city life.

There is more to it than that. The confrontation over the riverside plot says something about the conflict between people and profit that is at the heart of so much contemporary decision-making. But the resonances go deeper. Wandsworth is not the first land occupation by this group, which has described itself as the "New Levellers" and claims as forebears the radical Puritan movements - The Levellers and The Diggers - that burgeoned after the English Civil War. In a post-Christian age, where ecology has become the nearest thing we have to a shared religion, the Eco-Puritans of Wandsworth are not so far removed from the Christian Puritans of the 17th century as might be imagined.

The new occupants of Gargoyle Wharf are a mixed bunch with a mixed agenda, a ragtag crew of drop-outs, druggies, aesthetic idealists, anarchist activists and political reformers. One day last week in the large marquee of canvas and plastic erected as a central meeting venue, a group of spaced-out characters sat by a totem pole with massive candlesticks surrounded by colour postcards of Hindu gods. Focusing hard on their roll-ups or on formulating sentences or beating out desultory tattoos on African drums, their chief purpose seemed to be to provide colour for any passing tabloid- minded reporter.

But elsewhere there is a seriousness of purpose. Outside other members of the 40-strong occupation were cultivating vegetable and herb beds made up of site debris covered in the four tons of top soil and compost they have brought onto the site. Others were working on the construction of new compost loos after the surprised local health authority inspector pronounced their prototype sanitary and safe but insufficient to the deluge of visitors (they had 2,500 in one day recently). Yet others were effecting alterations to their "low-impact", eco-exemplar dwellings to stop the increasingly heavy rain from getting through.

In one, Bill Knight, a pony-tailed, 30-year-old civil engineer - for Henry Boot, Ove Arup and various other constructors until he went green - was inspecting the Safeway plans inside a building of sprung birch poles covered with recycled transparent plastic. It was modelled on the construction principles of a Mongolian yurt, he explained, launching into an impressive spiel about stress factors and load bearing.

"Look at this square 11-storey tower," he said jabbing his finger at the plan. "It's supposed to be an attractive riverside landmark feature. I could draw something more attractive, functional and cheaper in a couple of minutes." The plan, and two previous attempts, had been rejected by local planners. There were a Sainsbury, an Asda and a Tesco nearby, and the plans conflicted with government policy guidelines on shopping and with the local council policy on rejuvenating Wandsworth town centre."

The Levellers, after whom the modern squatters take their name, were a radical group of supporters of the Parliamentary cause during the Civil War. Their goals were the transfer of sovereignty to the House of Commons, an extension of suffrage to the "middle and poorer sort of people", equality before the law, security of land tenure, an end to conscription and tithes, and complete freedom of religious worship. "They came close to influencing the settlement of the kingdom after the Civil War," says Keith Wrightson of Jesus College, Cambridge. Their even more radical fellows, the Diggers, were agrarian communists who occupied land in Surrey for more than a year, demanding that common land should be given over to the poor to cultivate.

Today in an urbanised industrial society, land has lost the import it had in an agricultural age. "Land in the 17th century was employment. Therefore the only thing that lower-class people wanted was land. It was the crucial issue," says the celebrated Civil War historian, Christopher Hill. "Today unemployment is the crucial issue. The ordinary people do not want to go back to the land. They want jobs. If there was a modern equivalent of The Levellers, it would probably be centred around unemployment."

In Wandsworth they disagree. Without a doubt the most impressive of the campaigners there is George Monbiot, an Oxford academic (he is a Fellow of Green College) and an international environmental campaigner (he will miss tomorrow's meeting between the protesters and Guinness because he has a prior commitment in Brazil). Monbiot, 33, is the man with the suit, the cultured accent and a computer database full of media contacts.

So why has such a tuned-in character lighted on such an unfashionable cause as land? "Five per cent of the urban land of Britain is derelict. London alone has an area of vacant land the size of the borough of Westminster. Environmental issues, development issues and housing issues are one and the same," he told a London University conference on "Urban Regeneration and the Stakeholder Society" to which he dashed after giving television interviews outside the Royal Courts of Justice. "The problems are all linked. Building supermarkets closes down small shops in the area, wiping out large numbers of jobs [supermarkets usually producing a net loss in numbers of jobs in an area]. That drives house builders out onto the edge of the countryside. That encourages people to use cars more. The economic viability of city centre deteriorates and becomes increasingly hostile to human life. We need a moratorium on superstores."

That is not all he wants. Like the original Levellers he is after some very specific reforms. He wants changes in three areas of the existing planning system. At present if a local council says no to a development proposal, the developer can keep resubmitting new variations on the application every couple of years to wear the local authority down. Then through something called "offsite planning gain" a developer can legally offer a local council a large sum - between pounds 500,000 and pounds 40m have been reported in various cases - to sweeten an otherwise unpalatable proposal (in different circumstances this practice would be called bribery). Finally, if a local authority continues to refuse, the developer can appeal (as have Guinness and Safeway) through a public inquiry to the Secretary of State for the Environment to gain approval; yet the public cannot make the same appeal if their local planners say yes to something they oppose.

"We have to stop leaving these decisions to the town halls where so many opaque decisions are taken behind closed doors," Monbiot told the conference. "And we need the Government to pronounce that derelict inner-city land cannot be used for such development schemes. Then the value of the land would plummet from its present overheated prices and could be bought for low-cost housing and community projects."

Monbiot's choice of the Levellers as lost ancestors seems apt to historians of the 17th century. "Now that the conventional Left is committed to a productionist doctrine - concerned with efficiency and the maximisation of living standards - ecology is the last refuge of anti-capitalism," says Dr David Starkey of the London School of Economics. "And, as it seems it has replaced Christianity as the religion of our age, so these people are the new Puritans." The original and the new Levellers "both have an intensely earnest commitment to notions of moral and social reformation," believes Keith Wrightson. "There are family resemblances - psychologically, in their radical programmes and in the fact that they probably haven't got a hope in hell of succeeding." The original Levellers were quashed by Cromwell, who decided their agenda of religious tolerance and political radicalism was too subversive. Gerrard Winstanley's Diggers were thrown off their land occupation after a year.

Others, such as Tariq Ali, the great champion of protest and occupation in the events of 1968, see something more positive in Monbiot's combination of a wildly idealistic vision with a fine eye for the symbolic and a canny sense of what might be politically achievable in the short term. "The Sixties was about changing the world - small reforms were irrelevant. We failed," he now says, "but this movement is more focused. Some of the things they are doing they might succeed in. ... Amnesia is all too common in this soundbite culture. So it is good to see people looking back into history."

And though the groups to which the Wandsworth squatters now look back were quashed, their spirit lived on. The thinking of the Christian puritans - with its emphasis upon equality, individual freedom, extended suffrage, law reform, decentralising of decisions and power to the people - entered the bloodstream of radical English political thought. The elements of a more participatory political structure lived on in the dissenting churches - congregationalism, presbyterianism, the Quakers and the Baptists. The notion of the defence and extension of customary rights against authority became an important part of the inheritance of trade unionism. And the passionate commitment to the liberties of the free-born Englishman spawned a libertarian radicalism, which was why the British Left has always been more influenced by a Christian individualism than Marxist authoritarianism.

Privately the squatters accept that sooner or later Guinness will evict them. "But we will be there at the public inquiry which begins in Wandsworth Town Hall on June 4th," says Bill Knight. "These inquiries are usually heard in empty halls but we'll pack this one."

And if that fails? "We will pop up somewhere else. This is an idea whose time has come". Perhaps; perhaps not. But elements of their vision may be what carries into the next century a tradition that British public polity would be the poorer without.