Your Round

Why doesn’t Guinness stop fighting us and help us to turn its land into something worthwhile?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Big Issue.

When Dave walked in, the Guinness executives seemed to forget their lines. He was wearing his miniskirt, and – he had been building all week – his legs were covered in oil and mud.

“So, er, gentlemen, can I offer you a drink?” asked the head of public relations, nervously rubbing his hands together.

“Guinness” said Bill and I.

“Whisky” said Dave. He poured himself a quarter pint of Dimple. The head of corporate affairs adjusted his tie, then adjusted it again.

“We’ve asked you in,” said the head of corporate affairs, casting a sheepish glance at Dave, “because we’d like to make you an offer. If you leave our land now, Guinness might be prepared to work with The Land is Ours on a sustainable development project.”

The project, as yet, was unspecified, and no, it would not involve affordable housing. The land at Wandsworth was not, repeat not, negotiable. Guinness had already made its plans for the site perfectly clear – it wanted to build a superstore, a car park and executive housing, and that was the end of the matter.

“But you haven’t got a hope of getting those plans approved,” said Bill. “The council has rejected them and the whole neighbourhood is up in arms against them. Why don’t you come in with us and do something that local people want? There’s loads of money sloshing around for urban regeneration, so you wouldn’t even lose out financilly.”

“And instead of earning you bad PR,” I put in, “it’d do your image no end of good.”

“Don’t forget what happened to Shell,” said Dave.

The head of corporate affairs adjusted his tie again.

“The thing is, er, lads,” said the head of public relations, “we want our land back. We really do. It is ours, you know”.

Direct action has thrust me into some pretty strange situations, but this was surely the most bizarre – three scussy hippies bargaining with the board of one of the world’s biggest corporations over its own land. But, cheeky as we might have felt, our proposals were sincere. The 13 acres of derelict land in Wandsworth had for seven years been a blight on the neighbourhood. Covered in rubble and rubbish, surrounded by security hoardings, they were, in a borough desperate for affordable housing, a glaring lost opportunity.

At the beginning of May, 500 of us seized them and started building a sustainable village, with a community centre, houses, play areas, vegetable gardens and rosebeds. We pointed out that derelict land like this – and plans like Guinness’s – are helping to make our cities more and more hostile to human life, while driving the affordable housing we need into the countryside. After a week’s demonstration project, we handed the site over to local people and the homeless. About forty people are living there now, many of whom have nowhere else to go. Locals say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to the borough.

We’ve got nothing against Guinness, but no one would gain if the company kicked us off and returned the land to dereliction. So we’ve invited Guinness’s executives to come to the site and work with us, rather than sending the bailiffs in.They might find the proposition more palatable than having Dave in their drinks cabinet again.