Friday 15 November 2013

The most there is - is silence: Bohemia, the end of an occupation

Back to court, yesterday, for the hearing of the Bohemia case, in which the occupiers who have been living in the North Finchley pub since September were due to fight a possession order which would see them removed from the premises.

The action was being taken by Antic Ltd, who had been running the pub until its sudden closure one day this summer, with no warning, and despite doing good business, and becoming a much loved venue in the high street. 

Antic is now in administration, and behind them, and their association with the Bohemia, lies a long and complex history of ownership, leasehold and tenancies, resulting in a mysterious arrangement of devolved ownership referred to as 'the triangle'.

Judge Nicholas Parfitt presided over the case with fairness, and tolerance, and going beyond the call of duty to assist the defendants, occupiers Phoenix, Daniel and Luke, who were representing themselves as best they could, with, as Phoenix pointed out, no access to legal advice due to lack of funds and the new restrictions on legal aid. 

Representatives of Antic, their administrators, and agents Colliers, were also in attendance with barrister Andrew Sheftel.

The tiny courtroom accommodated only a dozen or so people: other supporters waited outside as the hearing commenced.

An awful lot of time ensued clarifying the tangled web of ownership of the Bohemia, but it emerged that it was actually Antic that was bringing the claim to repossess.

The defendants' case was that they had a licence to stay on the premises, granted by the actions of Alex Hill, an employee acting on behalf of the administrators. Phoenix, on behalf of the occupiers maintained that Mr Hill, acting as agent, had endorsed their status as caretakers and that this amounted to granting a licence. Phoenix claimed that they had agreed with him to allow workmen on the premises, with reasonable notice, and that they would hand over the keys and leave should a new tenant arrive. At no point had the occupiers been told they were trespassing and asked to leave, either verbally or in writing.

Phoenix made the case that he and his fellow occupiers had made every effort to engage with the landlords, and wanted only to facilitate the wishes of local residents, supporting a bid by the Bring Back the Bohemia campaign to create a co-operative pub, and retain the sense of community the venue has nurtured in a high street otherwise in the grip of decline - to serve the community, as he put it.

He referred to the previous occupation of Friern Barnet library, with which, interestingly,  the Judge clearly was familiar. 

Much discussion followed as to whether or not Mr Hill had been acting as an agent, and whether or not a licence had been granted, verbally or otherwise. The claimants' counsel denied any such action had occurred: there had never been any positive assertion to that end, he suggested:  looking at the evidence, he said - 'the most there is, is silence ...'

More sophisticated than mere silence, commented the judge.

After lunch the court reconvened and the verdict was handed down. Predictably perhaps, not so much due to the arguments, but due to the lack of informed legal representation, the occupiers' defence was rejected and the court ordered the pub to be repossessed. 

The claim succeeds, declared the judge. 

For now, muttered Phoenix, under his breath.

Possession was granted 'forthwith', which really meant immediately, but the judge said it would be enforceable from midday the next day, which was the best he could do.

Not content with this judgement, counsel for Antic wanted to move the order to the High Court. The argument would be that it would be 'quicker this way'. And a lot more expensive, observed Judge Parfitt, unimpressed, and refusing to allow such an action. Of course the real reason for such a move would be that any resistance to repossession by bailiffs would then become a criminal offence, and the occupiers could be arrested.

Phoenix asked for extra time before the order was enforced, pointing out that the shortly to be evicted occupiers included a pregnant woman. The judge said he had no power to extend time. But now came the matter of costs, and he announced that he would not be allowing a claim by Antic for costs of £23,000. He criticised some of the actions of the company, saying 'I cannot see for the life of me' why a letter for action wasn't sent to the occupiers, stating that they were trespassers, and telling them to go within a specified period, giving them the opportunity to leave before proceedings began. This was just common sense. 

Even during the St Paul's occupation, he said, this had happened. He commented that the conduct of the occupiers, albeit unlawful, had been co-operative and the failure of the owners to serve notice was unreasonable, therefore the refusal to award costs.

Phoenix, ever optimistic, asked about an appeal. The judge smiled but said he was refusing his application. He could still apply through another circuit judge.

After the hearing, the mood was subdued. Why, asked Phoenix,  don't people talk to each other? There are one and half million empty buildings, and how many homeless people? He was, however 'ectstatic' to be relieved of the burden of costs.

This morning we heard that despite the Judge's refusal to refer the order to the High Court, Antic had done so independently, and bailiffs were on the way, to be assisted by police to enforce the repossession order.

Arriving outside the pub this morning, a Mental Health roadshow charity had set up its stall, while behind them, the doors were locked, and barred. Local police wandered by, keeping a wary eye on the premises. 

After peering through the windows, Mrs Angry was ushered around the back, and slipped inside to take a last look around. It was a poignant scene, the few personal possessions of the occupiers, and their eclectic collection of discarded furnishings, handwritten posters, handmade decorations, their expressions of solidarity, and love.

Phoenix talked about the likelihood of high court bailiffs arriving to remove him and his friends. The subject turned to Dale Farm, and the infamous firm that specialises in evicting gypsy and travelling people from sites, with brutality and ruthlessness. The removal of marginalised people, back to the margins where they belong, is a lucrative business.

And as for Phoenix, Daniel, Petra, Mordechai, Luke, and all the others: naive they may be, and  a bit scruffy, and messy, and existing in a world beyond the petit bourgeois imagination of the average London suburban resident, but these people, in contrast to so many of our elected representatives,  live according to their own set of principles, a clearly defined moral code and a sense of mission. Rejecting the orthodox political process, using direct action, they believe in the possibility of positive change, to reignite a sense of community. Are they wrong?

While this is being written, police and bailiffs have arrived at the Bohemia, and taken possession of the premises. Some of the occupiers tweeted:

All hell broke loose for 5 minutes when police, security and bailiffs broke in through fire doors and evicted us.

The doors are open and a bad wind has swept in...

The repossession came with every aid for the bailiffs laid on: even dogs -

 Poppy, a local resident and Green Party activist tweeted :

 Musical instruments, mattresses, brave ragged people assembled in a squalid car park behind being kept in the cold by the bailiffs

According to the local Times report here:

... the blunt force of more than 30 large bailiffs and police officers meant the barricades were breached inside three minutes.

The enforcement staff screamed “get back” as they smashed down the rear doors of the pub, while the squatters, seemingly shocked into submission, could be heard shouting “we’re leaving” and “we’re not resisting” during the chaotic reclamation.

Updated: you can see footage from the forcible eviction here

A horrible end to a peaceful occupation. 

A strange world, is it not, where property owners have the right to set dogs on peaceful occupiers of vacant premises, tolerated by them as caretakers for several weeks, and then evicted without notice? 

Where so many empty buildings lie empty for years, locked, and unused, and homeless people sleep in shop doorways, in sub zero temperatures?

Yesterday in Scotland, in scenes more reminiscent of the Irish famine evictions of a hundred and sixty years ago, a widow was thrown out of her home for failing to pay her bedroom tax, and left to sit outside in the cold for several hours, with nowhere to go, before the authorities were shamed into doing something about her plight. 

How many more people affected by this iniquitous tax on poverty will end up on the streets this winter? 

Why are the rights of defaulting landlords given more importance than the basic human right to shelter?

What more is there to say?
This is Broken Barnet, November 2013: and that was the story of the occupation of the Bohemia.


Anonymous said...

Have I understood this correctly,
Antic's refusal to communicate with the squatters has cost them £23,000? Are they stupid, or did they consider that it was worth the money, to make some sort of gesture?

Doesn't this all seem like a piece of corporate street theatre, designed to discourage similar occupations, rather than a reasonable and practical response to a few squatters in an empty building?

Finally, it should be noted that the occupiers have been occupying the hours playing chess and the board game Diplomacy. I have a feeling that they will be thinking a few moves ahead.

Mrs Angry said...

I'm not sure if there was any strategy involved here, or simply a confusion between the web of interested parties responsible for the leasing arrangements. If you google Antic, you will find an interesting history which is much wider than what happened at the Bohemia.

Anonymous said...

I can see that it's complicated, but that doesn't explain why someone (at Antic?) made a decision that would cost the company and the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds - not to mention the unnecessary conflict, distress, destruction, and so on.

What? To gain possession a week or two earlier than they might if they had simply asked? It's bad management, at the very least.

Brian Coleman may not understand the difference between civil disobedience and a fight [see twitter], but there really wasn't any suggestion that the occupiers were going to resort to violence. The siege mentality seems to have only emerged because of the unreasonable deadline.

Unless they have a buyer who wants to move in on Monday, you'd have to say that the process has been more vindictive than practical.

Mrs Angry said...

As I understand it, the administrators will return the property to Mitchells and Butler within a couple of weeks. And yet on twitter, Antic London (now separate to Antic Ltd) claimed Antic Ltd was no longer in administration. There appears to be a pattern of short term pub businesses connected to this chain, the reason for which is not entirely clear, but there is some interesting stuff about the subject on the net.

Why the agents acting for the property did not bother to ask the occupiers to leave before going to court, and then insist on such a swift and confrontational ending to the whole thing is difficult to understand. In court it was established that at no point were the occupiers told they were trepassing, and asked to leave.

It will be anyone's guess what happens now, but rumour has it Tesco is eyeing up the site. This would be the last straw for many traders now struggling in the high street.

It's not just Coleman who confuses civil disobedience with violence - and how amusing to see him concerned about fighting in the streets of North Finchley -it seems the police operation was organised on that basis too, possibly caused by a local press headline which threatened an 'unruly' end to the occupation. The dogs used were from a private security company: an utterly unnecessary and disproportionate action: in fact I had no idea private companies were allowed to use dogs in this way. One of the occupiers was a pregnant woman, and I imagine this was a very frightening experience.