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June 8, 2010

Keep off the grass (and the park)

What is the purpose of a public park?  A straightforward enough question but the answer seems anything but.  At least in Edinburgh, where many of the public parks are intermittently fenced off to serve the commercial interests of certain  ‘festivals’  that populate the calendar – apparently without proper legal authority.  A one man protest was set to make this point to anyone who was prepared to listen at this year’s Taste of Edinburgh Festival

Keep off the grass (and the park)
What are public parks for?

Andy Wightman is a writer and land rights campaigner who lives near Inverleith Park in Edinburgh.

I am a community councillor and I’ve sat next to local councillors who more or less admit that the Council has been captured by these corporate interests. The Council has no leverage over them in terms of exacting a proper rent or stringent conditions because they are frightened that the company will take their business elsewhere.

In May 2009, The Taste of Edinburgh Festival paid a little over £3000 rent to occupy a quarter of the park for 2 weeks. Upon investigation I discovered that the council had no lawful authority to allow them to cordon off the park, or to allow them to charge people the £12 entry fee for 3 hours.

I discovered that anyone who wishes to close off access to most land in Scotland, and especially public parks, needs a Section 11 order under Scotland’s access legislation – Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Without it, no-one is entitled to block access to land. Unsurprisingly, there was no such order last year and there is none this year.

Which is why, when the Taste Festival begins on the 28th of May, I intend to go along and exercise my civic and legal right to wander across that part of the park which these people are cordoning off. Without a ticket.

I will sit down, contemplate life, and wonder whether perhaps the great Freedom Bill that the Lib Dems and Tories have promised will help to roll back the corporate takeover of the public realm. I will make a stand for our legal rights and I will remind the organisers that if they want to occupy our cherished public space for commercial gain again in the future, they had better seek the consent of the public – through a Section 11 order.

Land rights campaigner Andy Wightman says he will continue to his campaign to pressure Edinburgh council to consult local people on how public parks are used

Police prevented land rights campaigner Andy Wightman from entering the Taste of Edinburgh Festival today.

Wightman was taking direct action to challenge the council’s right to allow private events like the Taste of Edinburgh Festival to cordon off our public parks without a section 11 order.

Officers made in clear that he would be arrested for breach of the peace if he persisted in trying to enter the event without a ticket, and without permission.

He was initially met at the gate by a security guard, who explained that he would not be allowed access without a ticket.

Juliet Simpson, the managing director of Stripe Communications, the company running the festival, came to speak to Wightman personally.

“What is your legal authority for blocking access to the public and demanding a ransom from people coming into the public park?” Wightman asked.

“All I know is that I’m an events organiser that puts on an event for thousands of people.” said Simpson.

“Other people have bought tickets to come in today, so it’s only right that we can’t let you in without a ticket. It’s not fair to let you in without a ticket.”

Simpson offered to invite Wightman into the festival as a guest, and to escort him around. He declined, saying that if he was to enter, it would be because he has the legal right to do so.

Afterwards, Wightman persisted in his efforts to enter the park without permission, but was halted by two officers who had been standing by –

Lothian and Borders police have been following our coverage of the story this week.

Common law powers

He was informed that he would be arrested for breach of the peace if he continued to try to enter. “If you continue to try to access the event, contrary to what they wish, then I will invoke common law powers for breach of the peace and arrest you. And I don’t want to do that.”

Wightman was accompanied by Tony Cook, convenor of Friends of the Inverleith Park, who was there in support and as a witness. His organisation is also concerned about the impact and the exclusivity of this, and other festivals that have relocated to Inverleith Park.

Walking away from the festival grounds, Wightman and Cook talked about the next step.

“It’s good to make the point, to air it, to get people thinking” said Cook ‘I hadn’t really though about why they fence it off.”

“There’s two reasons” said Wightman. “One is health and safety – there are generators, and hot stoves, and that’s fine. But the other reason is that they want to charge sixteen quid for you to get in!”

Wightman made it clear that he would continue to pressure Edinburgh city council over the issue. He points out that both Glasgow and Dundee make it clear in their park rules that private events that exclude the public must have a section 11 order, and consult local people.

And with another major event, the Moonwalk, expected in the park over the summer, he does not rule out taking the matter to court.