Four Lancastrians will plead not guilty to the charge of Aggravated Trespass on Thursday after being arrested following a protest at the offices of Centros, the development company behind the plans for the Lancaster canal corridor shopping centre (see news story).
The four protesters were arrested last week after entering the Centros offices in London and locking themselves to one another to ensure they would not be immediately removed. They then proceeded to read out a long list of questions about the proposed development that had not been asked by councillors at a recent planning meeting where outline planning permission for the development was given.
“We went along to the planning committee hearing, which was an absolute farce," said protester Matthew Wilson. “Members of the public had just three minutes to voice their concerns, which was nowhere near enough time to list the many reasons we object to this development.”
The development has been strongly opposed by many local residents. Last year, more than 600 people marched through town to show their opposition. Many feel Centros' economic arguments for the proposal failed to take into account the current recession and its impact on the local economy as well as the council’s approval for a new superstore south of the city, which will undoubtedly hurt the supermarket now included in the Centros proposal.
Debenhams, which was already struggling prior to the recession, is no longer seen by some as a reliable ‘retail anchor’ for the scheme and point out Centros itself has reconstituted its commitment to the scheme to remove its liability in the event of failure in the wake of its partner, Miller, pulling out altogether.
The council’s estimated loss of £6 million in the Icelandic bank crash means that currently the scheme presents a risk they are in no position to indemnify.
Feelings against the development run high. Former Council leader Ian Barker, who had represented Bulk Ward for a number of years failed to get re-elected in last year's city council elections, his fate a clear sign that those Lancastrians closest to the development site are strongly opposed to the plans.
The protestors who occupied the Centros London office argue all but the Green councillors failed to listen to their constituents and those councillors in favour of the plans gave the developer an easy ride.
“We went through all the appropriate channels," feels Matthews. "We signed petitions, we marched, we wrote letters of objection, we went and addressed councillors at the planning committee meeting, and we watched councillors almost sleeping through those meetings, ignoring us and accepting at face value everything Centros had to say.
"People will say we should accept the councils decision, but this wasn't democracy in action." harking back to an earlier development that landed Lancaster City Council in trouble, Matthews declared "This was Blobbygate all over again.”
As well as having a local impact, the protesters believe that, in the face of catastrophic climate change, developments such as that proposed, which they argue rely on unsustainable transport patterns and a continuation of over consumption are nothing short of madness and go against the government's own proposals to drastically cut CO2 emissions.
“I was the only person to raise the issue of climate change at the planning committee,” Aurora Trujillo, another protester, adds. “The government acknowledge this is the biggest threat we currently face as a global community, and they acknowledge that the way we travel, shop, and work can all contribute greatly to this threat, and yet not one single councillor had anything to say about this.”
Council planning officers have admitted that air quality, which already fails national standards in the development area will be worsened by the Centros development according to Air Quality Assessments.
Articles in the press this week have called the protest an anti-development campaign but the people involved would love to see this area developed in a genuinely sustainable way, restoring existing historic buildings, building sustainable and affordable housing, providing real green spaces, and ensuring that the existing city centre and its many small, independent shops remain viable."
The protesters were not acting in the name of the Carnival of Culture, It's Our City or any group campaigning against the Centros plan.
The protestors will appear at Westminster Magistrates Court, London on Thursday. Section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJA) defines the offence as follows: "A person commits aggravated trespass if he trespasses on land with the intention of disrupting, or intimidating those taking part in, lawful activity taking place on that or adjacent land.
After studying the section, a Centros spokesman said “Our staff felt very intimidated by the seven who broke into the office.”