EAST Sussex County Council has been accused of “demonising” peaceful people as the row over a Lewes school site enters its sixth week.
Protesters have occupied the grounds of the former St Anne’s School since April 22, fearing the council intends to sell the site for development.
Last week a judge granted the council the power to remove the activists, but they defiantly remained at the Rotten Row site beyond the possession order coming into effect on Wednesday.
Angry Lewes resident Adrienne Campbell hit back at claims there had been complaints about the encampment.
She said: “It has been a lawful occupation with no complaints from local residents. Far from it. Residents I have spoken to are supportive of the group that is enabling the wider community to access the land.”
She continued: “I’m outraged by the allegation that the campers are at risk - they are not occupying the buildings and in fact have secured them and put up warning signs to others about the alleged asbestos.
“The council let the buildings run down without protection over several years, never preventing schoolchildren from entering or protecting them from the asbestos. Equally, they never protected the buildings from the children, allowing them to gradually vandalise the place. A cynical view might be that the council wanted the buildings to become run down.
“But to make a statement that they might have to now demolish the buildings to protect them from protesters - that really takes the cake.”
Ms Campbell, of St Johns Terrace, Lewes, said she understood the occupiers were remaining at St Anne’s until County Hall had given a clear undertaing about interim community use and to support a wider consultation about the future of the land.
She added: “Rather than continuing to demonise peaceful people, the council should go and see what is happening on the ground.
“After years of barring people from using this wonderful land, it is now being used for growing food, camping, walking, eating, playing, ceremonies and even choral singing. Everyone is welcome to visit - for as long as it’s open.”
Marina Pepper, a former Chairman of Lewes District Council, has written to Becky Shaw, the Chief Executive of East Sussex County Council.
She said: “We came in peace to dig and sow. We had not expected to be presented with court papers.”
She added: “Eviction is a costly and time-consuming option which helps no one and may not be guaranteed success. Eviction as it stands does not seem to be in the council’s interest, nor the locals who have given so much of their time, energy and resources to ensure St Anne’s is a safe, happy and positive environment for all who come to the site.”
The council has stated it has no immediate plans to demolish the building and no immediate plans to sell the site.
A spokesman said: “We are disappointed the protesters have not left the site but are still hoping they do so. We will be seeking further advice from the court appointed officials on how to proceed, and will continue to work closely with police and colleagues at Lewes District Council.
“As we have stated repeatedly, we remain committed to exploring with the local community and local councillors the potential for some form of community use of the grounds of the school. However, we will only do this once we have regained possession of the site and are able to secure the building. The protesters originally arrived on Good Friday and promised to leave within a week . We have been as patient as possible but our concerns about health and safety risks in the building remain and neighbours have complained. We have to protect our property on behalf of council tax payers right across East Sussex.”