Tree-gate: Veteran Parliament Square campaigner moves to Highbury Corner

Maria Gallastegui at the camp outside Dixon Clark Court Highbury Corner 05.02.21.

Maria Gallastegui at the camp outside Dixon Clark Court, Highbury Corner 05.02.21. - Credit: Polly Hancock

She lived in a tent outside Parliament for six years, and now veteran peace campaigner Maria Gallastegui has taken up residence in the trees at Highbury Corner. 

The 62-year-old moved onto the site of seven mature trees at Dixon Clark Court on January 29 after a High Court judge gave Islington Council the green light to evict campaigners there.

They had claimed squatters' rights to the trees four months ago in a bid to prevent them from being chopped down to make way for a block of flats.

The protesters were ordered to vacate the site off Canonbury Road by February 1, but have heard bailiffs are not due to turn up until February 8 and remain in situ.

Maria, who held a 24-hour vigil against the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan in Parliament Square from 2006 to 2012, has now turned her focus to the climate emergency and told the Gazette: "The last thing we need to do is cut down the trees."

Protestor Maria Gallastegui, is restrained on top of a storage container by police officers in Parli

Maria Gallastegui, is restrained on top of a storage container in 2006 by police officers in Parliament Square in Central London. - Credit: Cathal McNaughton/PA Archive/PA Images

She was living in the 150-year-old Happy Man plane tree in Hackney until January, when Hackney Council and developer Berkeley Homes secured a High Court order barring protesters from the tree so it too could be felled to build flats.

Just like at Dixon Clark Court, campaigners had also been living in its branches in the bitter cold for months trying to save it.

Maria described how bailiffs came in with ladders to remove her from the tree where she had been sleeping.

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"Then they chopped the tree, right there and then, in front of everyone in such a brutal manner," she said. Piercing screams of "shame on you" can be heard as the tree thuds to the ground.

"I wasn't present at the point it was cut down, but it would have been devastating for everyone who witnessed it, or who could bear to witness it," she added.

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"It's a reckless, reckless thing to have happened, and a totally irresponsible thing to do."

Maria Gallastegui at the camp outside Dixon Clark Court Highbury Corner 05.02.21.

Campaigner Maria Gallastegui at the camp outside Dixon Clark Court at Highbury Corner - Credit: Polly Hancock

"Legally now we can't win as we stand at Highbury Corner, but we are here based on a principle of the fact that too many trees are being felled all over London and countrywide - it's a serious problem."

Islington Council says the private block of 14 flats 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 campaigners have urged council chiefs to reconsider and build on one of 80 council-owned brownfield sites elsewhere in the borough.

Maria, who has moved to Highbury Corner with a group of people who are "rushing from one site to the other and panicking because we are destroying our own world and our own environment", added: "This shouldn't be happening.

"They are seven perfectly healthy trees.

"There's so much capacity and property standing empty all over London, and then there is all this big pressure to build, build, build.

"Their angle is that the protesters are a nuisance, and in the way to stop the building, but there is no reason to build here at all, because the capacity is out there."

 But Islington's housing chief, Cllr Diarmaid Ward, said the new council homes are "desperately needed for local families currently living in unsuitable and overcrowded conditions".

He added: "At the same time the project will deliver a minimum of 63 new trees, an extra 100 square metres of communal garden space for residents, and a number of plantings and landscaping improvements designed to improve biodiversity and address air quality issues.

“The council has done everything we can to avoid taking legal and enforcement action, including offering to spend the money we would have spent on legal fees on even more trees.

"It’s truly disheartening that people who claim to care about both trees and homes have forced an outcome resulting in fewer trees for the borough, significant costs, and further delays to building much-needed council homes for local families in desperate need.”

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