Wembley's tent city

How a battle to save a football ground and stop an academy school prompted teachers and other citize

What happens when an “International Children’s Charity” funded by multi-billion pound hedge fund speculators, wants to a build new academy school in some of London’s poorest boroughs?

Well maybe you get a situation like that in London's North Brent, where teachers, parents, trade unionists and local residents have come together to occupy the Wembley Park Sports Ground – the proposed site of the contentious Wembley Academy.

In March 2007, the anti-academy protestors moved onto the Sports Ground and pitched their tents just before Easter Break, in a secret “midnight swoop” that followed months of quiet preparation.

Their occupation opposes the construction of the privately-run Academy on the neighbourhood’s football pitch – also the site of a community hall, several local businesses and a children’s nursery.

Over the years the sports ground has hosted everything from secondary school football tournaments through weddings and funeral receptions, to celebrations of Malawi’s Independence Day.

Local kids from the estates are frequent visitors to the pitch, taking advantage of its low-cost fees – £1 a session. “It’s affordable football in the shadow of Wembley Stadium,” explains Mark Brown, a local resident who went to school in Brent.

The Wembley occupation represents one of the longest and most bitter protests against the accelerating privatization of the UK education system. Between eight and twelve people live on the site full-time, with dozens of supporters and part-time residents. Thousands of people have passed through. At its best, the “Tent City” has had thirty tents, three tree-houses and a garden.

The Tent City protestors object to the construction of a private academy on several levels. Academies are publicly-funded private schools – the vast majority of the funding comes from local taxpayers, while the corporate sponsor has full control over the school’s management and “vision”. And they’re very expensive – their construction costs around £10 million more than that of state schools.

Residents fear that local state schools will suffer in the shadow of the expensive new academy. Two local schools – Wembley Primary and Preston Park Primary have already received unusually low enrolments for September 2008. Because schools are given funding based on their numbers of students, these low enrolments could spell financial crisis for the area’s state schools as the council heavily promotes the new private academy.

The story of the Wembley Academy began when Lord Levy approached the then Labour controlled Brent Council and persuaded them to accept an academy in the borough. But when the sports ground was selected as the site – a spill-over from the growing “Wembley regeneration” – local residents responded with immediate opposition.

As a result, in the last election, the Lib Dems and the Tories signed an agreement not to allow an academy to be built on the sports ground. When the Lib Dems went back on their election promises, dedication to local grassroots opposition began to replace faith in the council. After months of attending community forums, circulating petitions, writing letters and calling local councillors, it became clear to Wembley teachers and parents that their concerns were being ignored.

Tent City, UK

The occupation began as an expression of frustration. “We had no other tactics left,” explains Hank Roberts, a full-time representative for the National Union of Teachers, “we’d gone to every forum, and we couldn’t get them to take a vote on the Academy. For us, direct action was a tactic borne of the failure of democratic process.”

Roberts was a teacher and the head of Geography at Wembley’s Copland Community School for 20 years. He has been at the Tent City since day one.

“It’s a unique situation where the teachers themselves have taken direct action,” explains Brown “It hasn’t been the typical Rent-a-Mob activist crew. It’s completely grassroots.”

Within a week of the Sports Ground’s occupation by local Wembley teachers and residents, the Academy’s initial sponsor – Andrew Rosenfeld – backed out. Soon after, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) recommended the ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) children’s charity as the new sponsor, calling them “an ideal partner for the council.” ARK is currently the sponsor of five other academies under development in London – in the boroughs of Southwark, Westminster, Lambeth, and Hammersmith and Fulham.

The protestors took down their tents in September 2007, after it appeared that Brent Council had granted its current tenants a year’s extension on their lease – hence postponing the Academy’s construction. The Tent City returned the last week of June 2008, when the council notified local businesses that they must shut down operations and vacate the area by the 31st of July. “We decided to move back on so they can’t start work,” said Jean Roberts, a part-time teacher from Hammersmith who has been living at the site.

After the protestors moved back on site, the sports ground was visited by surveyors and workers instructed to build an entrance gate. Using what they call “non-violent physical resistance,” the protestors pushed them off the land.

“Non-violent direct action is what’s appropriate here,” says Hank Roberts. “But if we had a 10,000-strong mob of people here, saying that they would defend the land by any means necessary, that’d be a different story.”

The Wembley Park Action Group formed in June 2007, as an umbrella group to coordinate the protests. They have over a thousand names on their petition against the Academy. Support has flooded in from community groups, sports ground users, trade unions, and hundreds of individual parents and local residents. A neighbourhood Wembley football club has renamed itself the “Tent City FC”. And when Wembley Primary was approached by ARK with requests to use the school’s classrooms, the teachers refused and threatened to ballot for strike action.

Meanwhile, as the anti-privatisation movement in Wembley is gaining in strength, the Council has proceeded to criminalise the protest. On June 15, 2008 the Borough of Brent won a Possession Order against the Tent City. The Willesden County Court also ordered an injunction against Hank Roberts on the grounds of trespass, requiring him to ask the Council for permission to visit the Sports Ground in the future. Bailiffs arrived at the Tent City last night at 6:00pm, to be confronted by over one-hundred protestors who refused to vacate the site. Teachers scaled the community hall and pitched a tent on its roof. Unable to evict the demonstrators, the bailiffs left.

“It was a great victory. So far, so good,” says Roberts. “And I have no intention of complying with the injunction. If I wind up in prison, it will be good publicity for the anti-privatisation movement.”

The militancy and determination of the Wembley protestors mirrors a maturing frustration with local politics, and growing discontent with the creeping privatisation of Britain’s public services.

And in Brent, at least, the battle continues.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.