Thursday, August 4, 2011


“Come and get evolved” beckoned the sign. Amazing when you think about it: knowing how messed up the sign reader would be and offering a superior life. It’s a combination I’d only seen in ads on the sides of religious buildings. A second sign gave a thumbs-down to cars and a big yes to bikes. The camper vans parked on Rotten Row looked like they shared a few million miles between them. Still, it was reassuring to know they wouldn’t be trashing the planet further by hot-rodding up the 20 yards of driveway from the gate.

The occupation of the old St Anne’s School site in May and June this year already feels like a hallucination. Walking by now you only know it happened because of the new fences and trespass warnings. I’m left wondering though what it was all about. What did the St Anne’s Diggers, self-dubbed “STAND”, actually achieve before they were removed? What, in short, did STAND stand for?

They did of course highlight the neglect of the St Anne’s site and pose the question of what to do with it. (What do you do with land in Lewes if flogging it off for housing isn’t an option?) Local blogger Dave Bradford provided a good summary of the history here. It’s led to a public consultation and open day. Raising awareness of environmental issues was also a given, but with an interesting twist. When I trotted up there for some digging myself (of information rather than soil) I encountered more scepticism about our local environmental movement than I was expecting. The flagship initiatives -Lewes Pound, solar panels, organic veg boxes and the like- seemed generally considered the blingy trappings of the rich who can “buy green lifestyles”. Which of course they are. You don’t hear much about poor people in environmental debates, unless it’s contempt for their love of cheap flights or of shopping at Tesco, so this was quite refreshing.

The broader agenda of the Diggers themselves on the other hand seemed less coherent. Beyond testaments to how well behaved the protestors were (and indeed everyone was incredibly polite), the main point seemed to be to demonstrate sustainable, self-sufficient living by gardening. Just exactly how this was going to work was unfortunately never made clear and, judging by the number of commodities in evidence not grown on site (tins, tents, stoves etc), that old devil money had already crept into the Garden of Eden. The point has been made in these pages before that the trouble with everyone returning to the land to save us from environmental catastrophe is that it’s an idea belonging on the compost heap of heroic failures.

In a link to history, the Diggers of St Anne’s identified themselves with the Diggers of the 17th century England. These were an interesting bunch who envisaged us all living in a network of egalitarian communities, tilling the soil in harmony. While they were basically crushed by bigger landowners, there also wasn’t much of a popular wave behind those Diggers either. Our society elected instead to have private property, consolidated estates, spices, tea, coffee, industry, iPads and a global economy. You may question whether that was the right choice but we managed several hundred years of prosperity on the back of it. For most of us that was considerably more appealing than the alternative of spending our short lives in grinding poverty. One of the troubles with taking your cue from history is that ideas which flopped back then don’t necessarily get any better with time.

So now we’re left thinking what to do with the St. Anne’s site. What the Diggers have at least shown is that it is easy to point out what our council have done wrong. Balancing public obligations, safety concerns, what’s useful and (crucially) how to pay for it is considerably more difficult. However, the public consultation is giving everyone a chance to get involved. There are some good ideas there. Some nonsense too but well worth a look.

As Josiah Bartlett, the fantasy U.S. President for all who are liberal at heart, said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Don’t think we need more allotments? A green burial site? A wild space? Perhaps you have a better idea? And perhaps some thoughts on how to pay for it! Now it’s over to us.

The old St Anne’s School site will be open to the public for consultation on Saturday 13th August, 10AM- 4PM.

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