A prominent campaigner against estate infill projects in Southwark was arrested earlier this summer on suspicion of hacking into the website of the housing association whose plans he opposes – before being told he had no case to answer.
Robert Hutchinson, who runs the @BallCourtGarden Twitter account that vocally opposes plans to build more social housing on the Elim Estate in Bermondsey, was taken into custody on the morning of June 10 this year.
Four officers, who came to his Weston Street address at 8.20am, told Mr Hutchinson he was under arrest on suspicion of breaking the Computer Misuse Act 1990, seized his laptop and phone and took him to Walworth Police Station, where he was kept for several hours.
It came after Mr Hutchinson tweeted the minutes of a board meeting of Leathermarket Community Benefit Society (CBS), the local housing association whose plans to build 32 homes on a play area on the Elim Estate he is fighting, along with many other local residents. Leathermarket has said that the new homes would mean they could rehouse families currently living in accommodation that is too small for them – a huge problem in Southwark, with thousands on waiting lists or in unsuitable housing.
Reached this week, a spokesperson for Leathermarket maintained that the plans were in a password protected area of the website, which was why staff reported the potential data breach to police. Mr Hutchinson denied the hack and said every document he accessed was in the public domain. Officers were also unable to find any evidence to charge him with.
Mr Hutchinson was let go within hours, and said he was told four weeks later he had no case to answer. But he said the reputational damage was considerable – and that the arrest had strengthened his resolve to fight the plans.
“Honestly, being arrested was horrific,” he told the News. “I was just shocked and surprised, there had been a burglary in the flats next door so when the police first came, I thought they were coming to ask about that. Suddenly they started getting aggressive. It was just horrendous. Having an arrest on your record – it’s not something I want to have as a professional. There’s an element of embarrassment to it.”
In a statement shared separately by email, Mr Hutchinson added: “In the process of researching Leathermarket CBS we found dozens of documents including board meeting minutes, updates and reports freely available via Google searches. None of the documents was marked private, confidential or restricted in any way. Instead of engaging in open dialogue with our community as we have asked for all along, Leathermarket Community Benefit Society made an allegation which led to my arrest.”
The Met Police said in a statement: “At 08:20hrs on Thursday, 10 June, police arrested a 53-year-old man at a residential address in Bermondsey on suspicion of securing unauthorised access of computer material, contrary to s.1 Computer Misuse Act 1990. It was alleged that the man had accessed the secure area of a website linked to a housing association between the 17th and 24th February 2021 and had published documents from the website on social media. He was taken into custody and later released under investigation. Following a review of all available evidence, it was determined no offences had been committed and no further action was taken.”
Leathermarket said in a statement: “The documents accessed are confidential and were stored on a password protected page on the CBS website for Directors.
“When it came to the CBS’s attention that confidential information had been accessed and subsequently shared via Twitter, the CBS made a general report of the data breach to the police – who requested a full log of visitor access to the website before deciding whether or not to progress. The police carried out their own independent investigation into who accessed the documents and how, and have now concluded their investigation.”
The housing association’s plans were originally set to go in front of Southwark Council’s planning committee on June 15, but this has been pushed back.
Leathermarket said when we first reported the delay that it “remains committed to delivering new and much-needed Council homes for local residents in housing need, and to meeting the needs of existing estate residents through new and improved community facilities and landscaping.”
Residents have since been offered the chance to vote for a new plan that would still see 32 new homes built, but that would also keep the outdoor play area.
This latest twist in the Elim Estate dispute is just one part of a borough-wide wrangle over where to build many of the 11,000 new council homes promised by Southwark before 2043. Residents on existing estates have frequently opposed infill plans to build on areas including car parks or green spaces near their homes, citing loss of light, mental health concerns and inconvenience. Twenty-eight estates in total are earmarked for infill homes.
Campaigners slammed the infill programme at a recent full assembly meeting, calling on councillors to halt plans.
Amanda, a representative of Bells Gardens in Peckham, told councillors: “We as a community understand the need for new council homes and support the development for 44 new homes across the road. But we also understand the need to maintain a certain level of access to communal green spaces for the health and wellbeing of existing residents.
“Bells Garden not only offers a substantial green space the size of Brunswick Park in Camberwell, but a multi-use games area and a large play space for toddlers and young children.
“It is a community park in all but name. The council needs to recognise that while regeneration can improve the local area, residents in our community are most likely to be excluded from what’s on offer.”
She continued: “The council needs to stop using the demands for council housing as a reason to justify the development.”
Cabinet minister for social housing and homelessness Cllr Stephanie Cryan said at the meeting: “We do have 15,000 on our waiting list and 32 on Bells Gardens are desperately waiting for a home,” highlighting that there would be a new park, play space and community centre and an increase in green space after the redevelopment. We have to balance both needs up,” she said, referring to housing shortages and greenery. I think Bells sort of strikes that balance but we will see if we can tweak it anyway. My commitment to you is that we will do that additional consultation, take the learnings from that, and see if we can change the proposals based on that.”