The powerful voice of environmental campaigners would be a mere whimper were it not for their human rights to congregate and peacefully protest. However, as a case concerning a campaign to save an ancient tree from the axe showed, judges are also obliged to give weight to private property rights.
A local authority granted planning permission for a major urban regeneration project involving the construction of thousands of new homes. The project would entail the felling of a tree which was said to be over 150 years old. After hearing of the tree's imminent demise, environmental campaigners established a protest camp around its base and on a platform in its branches.
The camp to some extent obstructed the highway and, in order to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, pedestrians had to divert their path onto the roadway. There was, however, no suggestion of any aggressive or unpleasant behaviour by protesters, who were well intentioned, orderly and polite.
After the local authority and the project's developer launched proceedings, the High Court noted that the tree was neither protected by a tree preservation order nor in a conservation area. There was thus no legal impediment to its removal. On the other hand, the protesters had the right to congregate and forcibly, but lawfully, express their opposition to it being felled.
Those rights, however, had to be balanced against the council's responsibilities as highway authority and the developer's contractual rights in respect of the site. The planning permission had been granted following a fully democratic process and, if required to leave the site, the protesters would be free to voice their lawful opposition elsewhere. Their campaign had continued for some months and their views had been powerfully expressed and widely publicised.
Noting that the protesters had no right to prevent the tree's removal, the Court found that their rights of congregation and freedom of expression were outweighed by the council's legitimate aims of seeking to ensure public safety and to promote a much-needed housing development. The Court granted a possession order in respect of the site. The protesters, described as 'persons unknown', were also ordered to vacate the area around the tree's canopy so that it could be safely felled.