‘Tree-gate’: Top human rights lawyer steps in to help save 50-year-old Highbury Corner trees

Climate activists celebrate at Dixon Clark Court after the High Court hearing on Wednesday. Picture:

Climate activists celebrate at Dixon Clark Court after the High Court hearing on Wednesday. Picture: Alex Hofford - Credit: alex hofford

A top barrister has stepped in to help save six 50-year-old trees at Highbury Corner from being chopped down by Islingon Council, to make way for private flats.

Marie Demetriou QC. Picture: Brick Court Chambers

Marie Demetriou QC. Picture: Brick Court Chambers - Credit: Brick Court Chambers

Climate activists, who have built shacks at Dixon Clark Court and claimed squatters’ rights to halt destruction of the sycamore, Norwegian maples and chestnuts, were ordered to vacate the site off Canonbury Road after the council took them to the High Court and won a possession order.

But Marie Demetriou QC, a leading advocate in competition, EU and public law and human rights from Brick Court Chambers, represented them at a pro bono at another High Court hearing on Wednesday.

She successfully argued for the protesters’ right to remain in situ until they hear whether they have won the right to appeal the eviction.

Ms Demetriou, who lives nearby, has supported the case since her neighbour Conor McHugh launched the campaign group Save The Trees a year ago.

She said: “Conor started this campaign and he was right to do that.

“He passed away dring the first lockdown and it’s important for the rest of us to carry on what he started.

“It seems wrong the council is in one breath saying there’s a climate emergency and we’ve got to do something, and in the next trying to destroy these trees which are 50 years’ old and good for the environment.

“There’s not much green space in Islington, and Highbury Corner is especially polluted and next to a primary school.

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“But not only are they good for air quality - the trees are good for everyone’s wellbeing.”

The council wants to build a six-storey block of 14 private flats where the trees now stand to provide a net gain of 25 flats for social rent elsewhere on site.

It says the new homes will “transform lives” and address the housing crisis in Islington, where there are 14,000 households on the housing register and many more families living in unsuitable accommodation.

But Ms Demetriou is urging the council to reassess its plans, and build the private flats on one of the 80 brownfield sites owned by the council elsewhere in the borough.

“I think the council hasn’t behaved appropriately in all this, and they misrepresent the position a bit,” she said.

“They are going to build some social housing - but they are going to build a private development where the trees are.

“The council could change its mind. It’s granted planning permission to itself.

“But it’s digging its heels in, and the right thing to do would be to change its mind.”

The council did not provide a new statement, but reissued the same statement which was issued last week from its housing chief, Cllr Diarmaid Ward, who said: “Very reluctantly the council has had to take this matter to court, despite doing everything we can to avoid legal action including offering to spend the money we would have spent on legal fees on even more trees.

“The council does not take the decision to remove trees lightly but demand for council housing massively outstrips supply, and we owe it to those families who are living in increasingly desperate positions to build these new council homes.”

A council spokesperson said that when councils build new homes, “sometimes difficult choices have to be made about removing trees”.

They pointed out that the council always pledges to replace more trees than are removed - in this case 13 on site, a further seven within 100m of the estate and at least another 43 new trees in the borough.

They said that in line the with the council’s declaration of a climate emergency, they had consulted with experts including arboricultural and air quality consultants and ecologists to “make sure we are cleaning up the air we breathe as well as building much needed new council homes”.

Protesters from Extinction Rebellion had been sleeping in the trees since the start of October, but they struck a deal with the council, who suggested they could plant more new trees instead of spending money on legal fees to evict them.

As soon as they left on October 25 Save The Trees took over the site.