On Monday 1st December, nine campaigners from Lancaster travelled to London to protest at the offices of Centros, the development company behind the plans for the Lancaster canal corridor shopping centre. (The protesters were not acting in the name of the Carnival of Culture, It's our City or any other campaigning group.)
Contrary to reports appearing in local media, the protest was orderly and peaceful. Whilst some protesters quietly held up a banner and handed out leaflets, four protesters locked themselves to one another, so that they could not be moved. They then proceeded to read out a list of questions to engage Centros' members of staff in a dialogue.
Protesters say that after having sat through the pretence of a council planning meeting, where most councillors (excepting the Greens) happily swallowed the often absurd claims made by Centros, they were disenfranchised by their lack of representation. Why, they ask, did councillors fail to seek answers to basic questions, such as: if this development isn't going to increase traffic, as Centros claims, why does it include a four-fold increase in car parking spaces?
Why did they let Centros claim this development would be good for the environment, on grounds that it would reduce shopping trips from Lancaster to Preston, whilst simultaneously claiming that the development would be economically viable because people from Preston, Blackpool and Kendal would be coming to shop here?
Why did they not challenge Centros' plans by pointing out how big developments like this threaten the already tenuous viability of independent local business?
Centros' proposals went unchallenged by any councillors other than the Greens, and those speaking in opposition had their points brushed aside.
Petitions, letters and the biggest march in Lancaster for a very long time did not make most councillors see that this development faces massive opposition; not even the removal of Ian Barker, the council leader who lost his previously safe seat in the canal corridor ward, which voted overwhelmingly Green - clearly a protest against this development - was acknowledged as a referendum against Centros.
This overthrow of democracy by the council planning office has left many people - including those who took part in Monday's action - feeling that there was no other alternative but to make a more direct statement to Centros - as they have considerably more influence over local planning decisions than local residents do.
Taking non-violent direct action (NVDA) has a long and valued history. From Gandhi to the Suffragettes to the civil rights movement to the anti-roads campaigners, NVDA has highlighted that critical mass point where overwhelming numbers of people recognise the need for democratic values to be reasserted.
As well as having a local impact, the protesters believe that, in the face of catastrophic climate change, developments like this which rely on unsustainable transport patterns and a continuation of over-consumption are nothing short of madness; in fact, they go against the government's own proposals to drastically cut CO2 emissions.
Furthermore it is blindingly obvious that the original economic predictions made for the development completely ignore the quantum change in the economy and the retail sector that has taken place in the last six months. Centros has acknowledged already that it is having difficulty finding stores that will commit to moving into the development - in a town that already has many empty modern town centre retail properties it is madness to attempt to double the city's retail capacity in the current downturn.
Articles in the press this week have called the protest an anti-development campaign; but genuine development must be genuinely sustainable, both environmentally and economically, and include the restoration of existing historic and structurally useful 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.
Below is the text of the leaflet handed out to office workers and other people in the building.
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