Lewes 'guerrilla gardeners' fight school site sale

Marina Pepper
Image caption Marina Pepper said the camp is welcomed by the residents of Lewes

As illegal occupations go this one is certainly at the more peaceful end of the scale.

Compost toilets, vegetable patches and tree houses now inhabit the grounds of a disused school in Lewes, East Sussex.

The self-styled "guerrilla gardeners" invaded the former St Anne's School site in protest, fearing it could be demolished to make way for housing.

East Sussex County Council has said it plans to sell the site of the special school which closed in 2007, but said no decision had been made about its future use.

The occupation began as a temporary "climate camp" over Easter, aimed at educating people about the environment.

Eviction notice

Image caption Several vegetable patches can found throughout the St Anne's site

But after finding out about the site's past as a special educational needs school and the apparent risk to its future, the protest took on a life of its own.

The St Anne's Diggers (Stand) were formed and crops of vegetables were planted throughout the site.

They have also created early warning mechanisms and built tree houses after the council secured an eviction notice in May.

The authority has recently agreed to a consultation on whether to give the land interim community use status, but only once the the campers leave, something which they shown no sign of doing.

Marina Pepper, who was a former Playboy model, journalist and chairwoman of Lewes District Council, is one of the protesters.

She said: "The [county] council don't count the trees they count the noughts. Its value to them isn't the biodiversity, it's the amount of houses."

Protesters believe the site should remain for community use as allotments or a park.

"Reaction from local residents to us has been positive," said Ms Pepper. "Lots have told us that they would rather us here than developers and that they haven't heard a peep from us.

"We would welcome anyone with a cup of tea - the tea tent is the centre of our universe."

Some of the protesters sleep in the tree houses as they fear a dawn raid from eviction squads.

They claim permission was sought by the authorities to use a cemetery, which borders the school, as means to access the site.

Ms Pepper said: "It's a shame when they are so unable to have a conversation, they would even consider walking over graves to pull peaceful people out of trees who have come in peace to sow."

'Surplus to requirements'

A former pupil of St Anne's, Dan Bassett, 20, who has learning difficulties and spent time camping on the site with the protesters, said they should stand their ground.

He said: "It's good they're standing up to the council - it's about time someone did."

A council spokesman said the site was "surplus to current requirements" and the authority had a duty to get the best price for the buildings and land.

Image caption The protesters say they have become nearly self-sufficient

He added: "However, the property market is depressed so we will not sell the site until market conditions improve."

He said the protesters were illegally occupying the site and the request to remove them via the cemetery was a matter for the court appointed bailiffs.

The spokesman added: "It should be borne in mind that the squatters initially claimed that they would be leaving after a week but failed to honour this.

"We also have genuine concerns regarding health and safety. This is an illegal occupation and in this context the County Council had no option but to seek an order for possession."

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