26 Oct 2011

St Paul’s U-turn on closure

As St Paul’s Cathedral announce it is “optimistic that it will reopen”, the MP for the City of London tells Channel 4 News he believes the initial decision to close it was ‘spurious’.

St Paul's U-turn on closure. (Reuters)

But St Paul’s Cathedral and the wider City district are still considering their legal options to remove protesters from the Occupy London Stock Exchange (OLSX), who have been encamped outside the Cathedral since October 15.

The protesters, who say they are highlighting corporate greed, were moved to the St Paul’s site by the police after an initial application to protest outside the nearby London Stock Exchange was turned down.

After initially welcoming the protests, St Paul’s then closed the Cathedral down last Friday over safe health concerns, a decision that it said was costing it around £20 000 a day in lost visitor revenue.

However, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, now says he is “optimistic” that St Paul’s Cathedral would be able to reopen to the public on Friday afternoon, following renewed advice about the arrangement of the protesters tents from independent health and safety experts.

“The staff team here have been working flat out with the police, fire brigade and health and safety officers to try to ensure that we have confidence in the safety of our worshippers, visitors and staff which will allow us to reopen,” Dean Knowles said.

As regards any other action, the Dean said “We have been and continue to take legal advice on a range of options including court action.”

In Pictures: Occupy London protests in pictures
St Paul's protest at night (Reuters)

‘Spurious decision’

Mark Field – the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, where the Cathedral sits – told Channel 4 News he hopes that the initial decision to close St Paul’s was an attempt to “wrest hold of the initiative” that has “backfired.”

“I think to be brutally honest the decision to close the Cathedral on the basis of health and safety grounds is based on spurious grounds,” Mr Fields said.

“Every step made by the St Paul’s authorities seems to have made the situation slightly worse. First welcoming the protesters, then closure, and then talk of legal action,

“The presumption was that this was going to be a weekend protest and not a semi-permanent encampment, and I think they wanted to wrest hold of the initiative not realising the protestors would dig their heels in. I think it’s backfired on them to be frank.”

OLSX deny health and safety fears

Spyro Leemnen, a spokesperson for OLSX, told Channel 4 News that the group were never a danger to the health and safety of the public.

“We have legal advisers and we are aware of our right to protest.”

Mr Leemnen, who says the OLSX are a collection of different groups strung together by a desire for greater social and economic equality, expressed his concern that St Paul’s were losing money but said the group have encouraged the 1000 people who attend per day to donate to the Cathedral.

“We don’t want them to lose money, but on the other hand how many billions and how many lives have been destroyed by the cavalier actions of those who control the global financial system?

“You’d think St Paul’s would be on our side as a church but instead they seem to be more worried about their revenue. Are they standing up for equality or big business?”

Legal options

Part of the land housing the camp is owned by St Paul’s, who would need to take action for trespass if they were to pursue a legal case, while other parts belong to the local authority – the Corporation of London.

If the Corporation were to try and evict the protest they may seek a case under laws relating to obstruction of the highways. But it’s understood that they would need the consent of St Paul’s, who so far say they are only considering legal options.

OSLX deny they are obstructing the public.

St Paul’s has not responded to a Channel 4 News request for a comment.