A High Court judge has granted the London Borough of Islington a possession order for a development site where protesters are occupying a copse scheduled for destruction.
The order from Mr Justice David Rees required the protesters to leave Dixon Clark Court by noon on 30 January.
Islington secured planning permission to build 41 new dwellings (including 25 new council homes) on the site in 2018. As part of the plan, 17 trees will be felled on the site – seven of which are more than 50 years old.
In October 2019, activists from environmental group Extinction Rebellion began sleeping in the trees to halt their destruction.
After three weeks, the protesters left the site following an offer from Islington Council to plant 63 trees across the borough as compensation.
But protesters from a different group, Save the Trees, promptly moved in, postponing the council's plans again.
Save our Trees secured more than 4,000 signatures on a petition demanding the council save the seven mature trees on the site. "We see these seven trees as an important screen for the estate and the adjacent primary school playground. Of more general importance, amending an already approved planning decision in favour of preserving trees would be an important precedent in helping to avoid urban deforestation in the future."
According to a report on the Islington Gazette, Jeremy Frost of Goldsmith Chambers, acting on behalf of the protesters on a pro-bono basis, argued that a possession order would be contrary to Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect the freedom to protest and freedom of expression, including the location of and manner in which any protest is conducted.
However, Mr Justice David Rees said he did not have the remit to assess the planning process in 2018 - and, if the council's planning decision would be challenged, a judicial review would have to take place.
The Islington Gazette report said Alex Cunliffe of Lamb Chambers, acting on behalf of the local authority, claimed that the council had a common law right to possession against the protesters who were trespassing.
He reportedly claimed that the strategy employed by the protesters amounted to a form of "economic duress".
According to the report, Judge Rees concluded: "That planning permission is not the subject of any legal challenge and it is a legal use of the council's property that is intended to create 41 new homes in an environment where there is a housing shortage.
"The development cannot proceed so long as the protesters remain on site. The cost to public funds to date from the occupation is in the region of half a million pounds and is increasing at a rate of over £10,000 a week.
"I have no doubt that this protest is one which will continue indefinitely unless a possession order is made and in my judgement, it would be wholly wrong to permit them (the protesters) to continue to do so."
Cllr Diarmaid Ward, Islington's Executive Member for Housing and Development, welcomed the decision and reiterated the council's focus on delivering homes in the borough.
He said: "Islington Council is committed to delivering decent and genuinely affordable homes for all, and the project at Dixon Clark Court will result in a net gain of 25 desperately needed new council homes for local families currently living in unsuitable and overcrowded conditions.
"At the same time the project will deliver a minimum of 63 new trees, an extra 100 square metres of communal garden space for residents, and a number of plantings and landscaping improvements designed to improve biodiversity and address air quality issues."
Cllr Ward added: "The council has done everything we can to avoid taking legal and enforcement action, including offering to spend the money we would have spent on legal fees on even more trees. It's truly disheartening that people who claim to care about both trees and homes have forced an outcome resulting in fewer trees for the borough, significant costs, and further delays to building much-need council homes for local families in desperate need."
Islington Council currently has more than 14,000 households on its housing register and 'many' more families living in unsuitable accommodation.
A spokesperson for the council said the authority had gone to Arboricultural and Air Quality consultants as well as ecologists to ensure new council home developments did not negatively impact air quality or biodiversity.
"The minimum of 63 new trees (total) being planted both in Dixon Clark Court and at other sites around the borough, are a mix of small, medium and large species of trees providing a range of habitats. With the additional trees planted off site, have ensured that we will comfortably exceed the current carbon absorption of the six trees due to be felled, by the time the new homes are complete."
The spokesperson added: "The Dixon Clark Court scheme also includes environmentally important landscape improvements such as a species-rich hedgerow and plantings of indigenous shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, which will help to promote local wildlife as well as combating the effects of air pollutants."
Save our Trees responded to the decision with "extreme disappointment".
"Yet another sad day for trees and a decision supporting @IslingtonBC lack of understanding of what a Climate Emergency means. Why declare one?"