Order gives go ahead for Olympic basketball protest camp eviction


John Aston
Monday 02 July 2012 14:15

A High Court official today granted a possession order paving the way for the eviction of protesters opposed to the building of an Olympic basketball training facility in parkland.

Amid angry scenes, the order was issued "with immediate effect" to the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, which can now take steps to clear the protesters' encampment.

The official, Master Matthew Marsh, made the order against "persons unknown" after being told that the protesters had set up tents, collected wood and made fires in breach of park byelaws.

Master Marsh said: "On the face of it there have been breaches of byelaws and a number of criminal offences have taken place."

The possession order was made the day after London Olympics bosses were granted a High Court injunction to prevent the protesters hampering the construction of the basketball facility in Waltham Forest, north London.

A handful of activists attended court from the protest camp, which is located near an access road and the construction site perimeter fence on Leyton Marsh.

Attempts by them to oppose the possession order during the hour-long hearing were frustrated because none were willing to be named as residing at the camp.

Master Marsh ruled that, as they were not willing to be identified as "in possession of the land" - and possibly incur legal costs - they could not legally be considered defendants and allowed to oppose the making of the order.

Two individuals, Matthew Varnham and a person referred to as "Chris", offered to act as McKenzie friends and make submissions on the protesters' behalf.

They said the protest was being staged because the Olympic development had been pushed through without proper consultation and an environmental impact assessment.

They said they wished to argue that a possession order would violate the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association under articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

They applied for an adjournment so that they could take legal advice and properly prepare their case.

Refusing an adjournment, the Master said McKenzie friends could only assist recognised defendants.

But there were no named individuals before the court today "entitled to defend these proceedings".

Ordering possession, the Master said he was satisfied there were "a large number of people and considerable number of tents" on the land without consent in what was clearly a "permanent occupation" in breach of park byelaws.

Referring to the need to balance the rights of the park authority against the right to protest, the Master said the balancing exercise "firmly comes down here in favour of the (authority)".

The Master said: "I fully recognise and respect the entitlement to freedom of expression and indeed to protest and object to matters with which members of the public do not agree.

"However, it is clear to me that it is not necessary or essential for that freedom of expression to take place on this land.

"There are many other ways in which protest can be pursued. There is no central requirement or need for there to be an assembly on this land for the protest to be properly pursued."

The judge said he had also taken into account the matter of the byelaws and the breaches which had taken place.

Ruling that it would be "neither necessary nor appropriate" to adjourn the case, he declared: "It is appropriate to make an immediate order for possession today."

His decison followed submissions by Timothy Fancourt QC, on behalf of the park authority, which were punctuated by angry and frustrated outbursts from some of the anonymous protesters in court.

One slammed the door as he left court, saying: "Enjoy your free tickets, yeah."

The unnamed man was apparently referring to yesterday's court proceedings in which High Court judge Mr Justice Arnold granted the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) a temporary injunction "restraining unlawful activity" by protesters said to be threatening the building of the basketball training facilities in good time.

Mr Justice Arnold declared an interest, saying he had tickets for one of the basketball matches.

Today Mr Fancourt told Master Marsh the new application for possession had been made because the protest camp "has now assumed an element of permanence and amounts to possession of the land".

The setting up of the camp was an interference with the right of the park authority to manage the park and members of the public to use it.

Park byelaws prohibited unauthorised camping and the lighting of fires, and it was a criminal offence to breach them.

Mr Fancourt said the first protesters arrived with their tents on about March 24 and there had been a number of incidents involving the delivery of materials to the Olympic site.

Fires had been lit and trees damaged to obtain fuel, said Mr Fancourt.

If the camp remained, there was a serious risk of disorder as it was "clearly likely to be a honeypot" for other members of the Occupy movement wishing to protest.

Local Labour councillor Ian Rathbone said today's decision was "unfair".

He said the "protesters" included local people who had a reasonable objection to an "ugly three-storey" building being erected on "public, green land".

He argued that the Olympic Delivery Authority and the park authority should be holding discussions, not seeking court orders.

"Quite frankly, they would never have got planning permission to build this here if it hadn't been for the Olympics.

"The bully-boy Olympics have come along and pulled the emotional string and said 'We need to have this'," said Mr Rathbone, a member of Hackney Council.

"It's really disappointing. Really, really disappointing. They have all gone to such extraordinary lengths. They are wasting our money going to court when they could have discussed it."

Protesters said they were disappointed.

"We are disappointed with the injunctions granted today and yesterday, especially as so many questions remain unanswered including why work has been allowed to continue despite the discovery of asbestos and other health and safety hazards on site," said a spokeswoman for the Save Leyton Marsh Group.

"However, we are relieved that the judge has upheld our right to peacefully protest, enabling us to display banners and continue to run our website.

"It must be pointed out that any camp on Leyton Marsh is there with the support of local people unlike the basketball facility.

"Unlike the construction, the tents do not cause long-term damage to the site nor prevent people from accessing the land.

"Around 70% of Porter's Field Meadow is inaccessible due to the construction but this was not considered in the judgment against a small number of people camped in tents who after all are there to protect, and not destroy, the land.

"We welcome the support of our local councillors including Ian Rathbone."

She added: "We are disappointed that the ODA resorted to allegations of harassment, intimidation and even assault throughout the hearing in order to support the injunction application.

"If there is any sound basis for these assertions they should have been reported to the police and investigated, which has never happened despite their frequent presence on site.

"In reality, relations with the contractors at Leyton Marsh have been friendly with many expressing support for our cause, one even saying 'this is the greenest space I have ever worked on. I think it's a shame'.

"We will continue to campaign to save our marsh, to protect the marsh habitat and safeguard the health and safety of all despite the legal threats against us."