'How we risked our lives digging a secret tunnel to save Highbury trees'
- Credit: Polly Hancock
Islington Council has brushed off claims of a secret tunnel at Highbury Corner as "just one person in a hole" - but the Gazette has spoken to a "tree protector" who claims they have risked their life to help to dig it for the past three months.
The protester, who wants to remain anonymous, began sleeping in the trees in October to prevent seven 50-year-old trees on the Dixon Clark Court estate from being destroyed by the council to make way for a block of flats.
It was apparently after the direct action protest group Extinction Rebellion struck a deal with the council, and left the site to be replaced by the group Save The Trees that the digging began.
Since bailiffs and "protester removal technicians" swooped on the site on Tuesday morning (February 9), the council has said it "cannot confirm anything about tunnels at this stage" - but the protester claims the tunnel is burrowed beneath a shack, and is "big enough to enter with your full height, before you have to crouch down and start crawling on a platform".
Campaigners - some of whom have also helped dig a 100ft network of tunnels at Euston to try to prevent the HS2 high speed rail tunnel from progressing - have been working in rotation.
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They say they have shored up the tunnel to try to prevent it caving in by using boards and frames, employing "an old technique".
"The tunnel is deep enough so you avoid collapse, and we've put boards so you keep dry," said the protester.
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"You slowly keep going with the digging, and we have used the earth that we dug out to insulate the shack above, so it wasn't taken out from the hut."
The tunnelling tactic was used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and influenced eco-warriors trying to prevent the Newbury bypass from being built in 1996.
Veteran eco-activist Daniel Marc Hooper, better known as Swampy, spent a week in the Newbury tunnels, and has been on hand to provide advice.
The protester admits they have found it scary at times.
"Of course you worry it might collapse on top of you," they said.
"The more you dig, the more difficult it is to get people out of it.
"Of course you don't dig a tunnel every day to protect a tree, and there are risks involved - but it is justified because our future is in peril because of the climate emergency.
"We are doing this in desperation, because nobody is listening."
They added: "It was a new experience for me, and it has been a learning curve about how to better resist and make a change when our political leaders are not listening to the community.
"This is a last resort, but it's a fulfilling experience.
"It's warm down there, and when you are enclosed, and you work and you dig, day by day, you get pretty warm and it's quite nice.
"If you are generally claustrophobic you shouldn't go down there, but some people find it very exciting, as a direct action, and others even find it therapeutic to be there and to spend time with the earth."
High Court bailiffs joined council officers and the police at dawn to try to move protesters off the site to push on with construction work on the new development.
But it is claimed some of them may still be in the tunnel, and that it is stocked with food, water, bedding, battery packs and other essentials.
The council says the block of 14 private flats it wants to build where the trees now stand will help solve the housing crisis, and will fund a net gain of 25 flats for social rent on site.
Campaigners have been urging council chiefs to reconsider those plans, and instead build on one of 80 council-owned brownfield sites elsewhere in the borough.
The council's housing chief, Cllr Diarmaid Ward, said: “The council is committed to delivering decent and genuinely affordable homes for all, and the project will result in desperately needed new council homes for local families currently living in overcrowded and unsuitable conditions."