Squatters who have taken over Raven’s Ait island with the dream of taking it into a “eco conference centre” face eviction by the council at a court hearing next week.
They are desperate to transform the former wedding and conference centre into a “Green University”, complete with lectures, film screenings and permaculture garden, after moving in illegally three weeks ago.
Steps have already been taken to create an audio-visual room, cinema, library room and eco garden while the group acts as “caretakers”.
But the council, which owns the island, is adamant that it will either sell it off or lease it out to a more regular company, who would be likely to keep it as a entertainment venue.
The arrival of the 12 squatters, who are understood to have come from outside the borough, has angered some neighbouring businesses.
Richard Turk, manager of Turk’s Launches is among those who have expressed an interest in starting a business on Raven’s Ait.
He said: “We’ve done very well to keep river gypsies out of this stretch of the river and now they’re all back again.
"How safe are my boats and equipment with them around?”
Rumours that a rave was being planned for the island last Saturday, March 7, lead police and the fire brigade to serve a restriction notice banning more than 60 people from coming to the island.
The squatters denied ever planning a rave, and were instead hosting a eco-cinema evening, where 48 people watched a film about diminishing fish stocks.
Martin Freeman, station commander at Surbiton fire station, insisted the rules were not set out to deliberately cause problems for the squatters but for “public safety”.
He said: “There is not a ferry so if there was a fire and people needed to get off the island, it could be difficult.”
The rules, which also include restricting visitors to ground floor rooms, could be lifted as soon as the squatters prove the have working fire alarms and precautions.
Several of the squatters are part of the Circle Community, which has occupied buildings elsewhere in the capital, including Spike Community Centre in Peckham most recently.
Squatter Peter Phoenix, 38, insisted the group is treating the place respectfully and paying for its own electricity through a £1,000 grant from an environmental group.
He said: “We’re care takers looking after the building. It’s a £4.5m building and there was no security looking after it or the equipment here.
"They’re lucky they’ve got a respectful group here to keep troublemakers away.”
He said the group would leave peacefully when required but pleaded with the council to let them stay until it is ready for someone else to move in.
But a council spokesman said their presence is likely to deter any future business interest and it intends to regain possession of the property as soon after next week’s court hearing as possible.
Raven’s Ait Ltd, which ran an event and conference business on the island, went into administration on November 27 last year, shattering dozens of wedding and Christmas party plans and leaving some people more than £12,000 out of pocket.
Make them leave
Kingston eco-campaigner Bernadette Vallely believes the borough is already served well enough by Kingston Environment Centre, and is disappointed that the squatters set up their “eco conference centre” without consulting them first.
Despite singing from the same green hymn sheet, she said: “They came into our town really to get a free place to live. We already have an environment centre half a mile away.
“It’s a grown up response to the environmental problem that we need. Don’t set group up against group, what a negative way to do it.”
She is angry that the money being spent on their eviction could be used to finance other green projects in the borough, including the paint the town green festival, after school clubs and family days.
Deputy Council Leader Barry O’Mahony is also disappointed that the squatters moved in so quickly that it preempted the opportunity to give it to other community groups, such as the local sea scouts.
Let them stay
Local environmentalist Jean Vidler fears that evicting the group would alienate residents from the ideas of ecologists and radical greens.
She said she has known members of the group for several years and understands that they have been trained in health and safety and security.
She added: “I would suggest that the council seriously question Phoenix and the Earth Circus about their intentions, their past record etcetera.
"I am not suggesting they should take anything on trust.
"But speaking for myself I believe there must be a third way and a cheaper option for the borough than evicting people of good intent.”
Nathan Erasmus, organiser of the Maple Road street party in 2007 has supported the squatters, believing the building would be well suited for community use and could bring business to the Surbiton area.
Kingston Councillor Bart Rickets, chairman of the Save the World Club, has visited the squatters and said he is prepared to hear their views.
While the council is insisting it will press ahead with the eviction, he said: “I’m not sympathising with them but I’m interested in finding out what it’s all about.”
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