The destruction of seven 50-year-old trees at Highbury Corner is now imminent, after a High Court judge gave Islington Council permission to evict the protesters who have been occupying the site.

The council has racked up over £250,000 in terms of its officers' costs and legal bills trying remove the eco-campaigners from the land it owns at Dixon Clark Court, in the space of four months since they declared squatters' rights.

First, campaigners from the direct action group Extinction Rebellion began sleeping in the trees in October to thwart the council's plans to build a six-storey block of 14 private flats where the trees now stand.

After they struck a deal with the council to plant more saplings and left three weeks later, another group, Save the Trees, set up camp in make-shift wooden huts.

The council argues the private block will help solve the housing crisis, as it will fund a net gain of 25 flats for social rent at the estate off Canonbury Road.

But eco-activists have been urging housing chiefs to consider whether the block - which was given planning permission in 2018 - could instead be built on any of the brownfield sites it owns. They pointed to the climate emergency Islington Council declared in 2019, when it made a pledge to embed carbon reduction in all relevant decisions.

Islington Gazette: The group Save The Trees are asking the council not to chop down the seven mature trees at Dixon Clark Court. Picture: Save The TreesThe group Save The Trees are asking the council not to chop down the seven mature trees at Dixon Clark Court. Picture: Save The Trees (Image: Save The Trees)

At the High Court this morning, barrister Jeremy Frost - who represented the campaigners on a pro-bono basis - argued that to allow the protesters' eviction would breach their rights under article 10 of the Human Rights Act, which allows everyone the right to freedom of expression, and article 11, which allows peaceful protest.

"We say we can’t move off site and do this protest anywhere else, because the location is the protest," he said.

"We don’t have time to spout forth hot air about the climate emergency, and then take decisions that totally fly in the face of that declaration.

"When the planning decision was made, there was no climate emergency, but it can be seen as a wholly irrational decision to say 'we will protect the environment' and then to approve a scheme that sees one of the only remaining green spaces in one of the most highly polluted boroughs in London removed to make way for a block of houses."

Alex Cunliffe, acting on behalf of the council, argued as owner and "landlord" of the property, it had a common law right to possession against the protesters who were trespassing. He alleged that by remaining there, they were effectively "blackmailing" the council into submission.

"Blackmail has a particular legal connotation and I don’t intend in any way to say that is what the protesters are doing in the legal sense, but they are saying they should be allowed to continue to occupy the land to force the council to speak to them and to make proposals that are acceptable to the people that are on site before they leave," he said.

"That entails nothing more than a form of economic duress."

His Honour Judge David Rees said it was his job to balance the protesters' right to freedom of expression against the council’s right to the land it owns.

In contrast, he did not have the remit to assess the planning process in 2018, which Mr Frost claimed was subject to "manifold flaws". The council's planning decision could have been challenged through a judicial review but it was too late to file that now.

HHJ Rees said: "That planning permission is not the subject of any legal challenge and it is a legal use of the council’s property that is intended to create 41 new homes in an environment where there is a housing shortage.

"The development cannot proceed so long as the protesters remain on site.

"The cost to public funds to date from the occupation is in the region of half a million pounds and is increasing at a rate of over £10,000 a week.

"I have no doubt that this protest is one which will continue indefinitely unless a possession order is made and in my judgement, it would be wholly wrong to permit them (the protesters) to continue to do so."

Protesters have been ordered to vacate the site by noon tomorrow.

Islington Gazette: The little forest at Dixon Clark Court. Picture: Alex Hofford.The little forest at Dixon Clark Court. Picture: Alex Hofford. (Image: PHOTO CREDIT: ALEX HOFFORD)