Saturday April 1, 2006
Police are to investigate threats against housebuilders and demolition contractors made by Britain’s first known architectural extremists who have accused them of being responsible for “beautiful buildings, full of history, being ripped apart and replaced with featureless junk”.
Barratt Homes, Bovis Homes, Laing Homes and Westbury are on the Historic Buildings Liberation Front’s list of 37 targets which have been threatened with “retaliation for nationwide devastation” in an attempt to escalate a decade-long campaign by the shadowy group which has staged dozens of attacks across Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
The group says it is dedicated to stopping modern housing developments and the destruction of historic buildings.
It claims that “as a result of developers’ greed and planners’ indifference, the erosion of regional identity is at crisis point”.
Police believe the group is being spearheaded by an individual. So far most of the attacks have been carried out single-handed.
The HBLF has damaged new buildings with paint and angle-grinders, slashed and punctured tyres on demolition contractors’ vehicles and caused tens of thousands of pounds of damage to the property of companies and individuals connected to new developments or the demolition of historic buildings.
Its campaign restarted this month with a call for supporters to step up activity and target the housebuilding companies which are being relied upon by the government to make up a supply shortfall of 50,000 homes a year nationwide.
A manual on how to carry out attacks has been written for recruits and includes instructions on using a specialist grinding wheel to tear into brickwork and glass “throughout the night to cause tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage”.
There is advice on executing its trademark technique of splashing buildings and cars with white paint. It recommends tyre walls are spiked with Stanley knives and that activists carry bolt cutters and saws for vandalising fences and cables. Weedkiller should be used to paint the letters HBLF on to the grass of target sites.
Members are told to cover their faces and wear hats and gloves. Old clothes, especially for assignments, should be kept hidden, for example under the floorboards in a garden shed. The manual even advises would-be attackers who are feeling nervous. “You are feeling apprehensive, leave your tools where you can pick them up later, go into the site and sit down for a time. Relax for a while, perhaps with a flask of tea,” it advises.
It also offers advice on avoiding capture and insists on every action being accompanied by a calling card.
“There has been a huge indifference to his beliefs and horror at the nature of his crimes,” said Sergeant Howard Travis of Bedfordshire police, referring to the invidual thought to be behind the attacks. “In the last 10 years, crimes claimed to be by the Historic Buildings Liberation Front have been committed in Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. It involves very serious damage and is without a shadow of doubt a serious issue.”
HBLF’s reported activities include an attack on the offices of Hitchin Youth Trust in Hertfordshire because the trust’s building was slated for demolition prior to redevelopment. It spiked scores of tyres at two demolition companies and in September 2003 it ground the letters HBLF into the wall of a social housing development by Bedford Pilgrims housing association in Kempston where an ornate Victorian house had stood, causing damage estimated at Ôø?2,500.
“The attack came out of the blue,” said the association’s chief executive, John Cross. “There had been a campaign mounting through formal means and some councillors were saying perhaps we should save our Victorian heritage, but it came as a shock.” He said the building was replaced with “routine family housing that wouldn’t win any architecture awards” but denied it eroded local character and pointed out the Victorian building was fire-damaged and could only be reused at great expense.
The property of Gerald Angell, a farmer in Ashwell village, Hertfordshire, was attacked after he decided to carry on with a project to build a new barn in spite of a planning refusal because the site was thought to contain the remains of an historically important villa. “The experience was absolutely shocking,” said Courtenay Patten, a friend of Mr Angell. “They knifed his tractor tyres and they also knifed my Land Rover tyres and they threw paint over his tractor and over his house.”
The HBLF’s call for action was reported in the Architect’s Journal this week after it was sent to campaign group, SAVE Britain’s Heritage.
“There is no way we could condone violent action, but this reflects widespread concern and anger at the continuing loss of great historic buildings and the continuing erosion of the wider historic environment,” SAVE director Adam Wilkinson said. “There are thousands of houses threatened with demolition in the north and midlands under government policy.”
A spokesman for the House Builders Federation refused to respond to the HBLF’s criticisms. “These are criminal activities and are matters for the police.”