A student occupation at University College London (UCL) has been forced to disband after university management gave notice that they would hold three students liable for £40,000 worth of costs.
The occupation was established in protest at UCL’s plan to open a new campus in Stratford, east London. The development of the campus would require the demolition of the Carpenters’ Estate, and the eviction of hundreds of council tenants from their homes. Robin Wales, the Labour executive mayor of Newham, has defended the plans. Among his many justifications, he has said: “you find people who say it’s their chance to move to Southend.”
On Wednesday 26th November, after a record 4-hour meeting of UCL’s ruling Council, students occupied the Wilkins Garden room. Council failed to reach a decision on the plans, although these have already been approved by Newham council Residents of the estate visited the occupation, and have been regularly consulted by students throughout their campaign.
But the students were soon served with a court order and injunction, which singled out three individuals. The occupiers faced a court hearing on December 5th if they chose to stay in the room. The group felt there was no option but to end their occupation, in the light of the victimisation of individuals for what was evidently a collective act.
Keir Gallagher was named in the injuction papers after writing a comment on a Facebook page saying “Fantastic support offered by John McDonnell”, referring to the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington. UCL used a screenshot from the Facebook group as part of the case against the occupiers.
He said: “I came to UCL expecting an education where students are a valued part of the institution, not subject to intimidation. My first direct contact with my university’s management has been the threat of legal action in the High Court. I have felt personally intimidated and victimised by UCL’s actions.”
Another student named in UCL’s court papers, who opted to remain anonymous, said: “I found UCL’s use of CCTV and online surveillance to identify those participating in the protest deeply disturbing. This not only constitutes an invasion of my privacy but makes me feel personally threatened.”
Ellen, an English literature student, added: “UCL don’t want to deal with the issues at hand, they simply sweep the problems under the carpet by threatening to evict students from the building and people from their homes.”
The students have nonetheless vowed to continue their campaign against the plans.
Earlier this year, Mayor Wales was filmed giving an obnoxious response to a resident concerned for his security of tenure. Owen Hatherley, writing in the Guardian, described the estate as “structurally sound”. He concludes:
Why? For UCL, it’s a no-brainer – a place with far cheaper rent than Bloomsbury, good links to the sundry “hubs” of Docklands and even an international rail connection. But what’s in it for Newham? Unlike Shirley Porter’s reign in 80s Westminster, the council can hardly be driven by electoral arithmetic, given that the old tenants are more likely to vote Labour than UCL students or Canary Wharf clerks. It’s just the done thing, the common sense of contemporary local government. We might wonder what it would take to shock Labour councils out of this kind of casual, glazed-eyed Thatcherism. The biggest crisis of capitalism since the 30s, perhaps?