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Court Pleads for an End to South Bank Saga

An artist who for decades has exhibited his work on an assortment of historic barges on the south bank of the Thames is facing eviction after the High Court pleaded for an end to a legal saga that has seen land owners and the Port of London Authority (PLA) spend millions in an epic struggle to clear the river bank.

LondonMax Couper is fascinated by the Thames and his art collection, run as a charity open to the public, has long been a familiar feature of the riverside at what is nowadays called Albion Wharf, between Battersea and Albert Bridges. However, Mr Couper has since 1998 been engaged in legal warfare with the owners of a mixed use development on the river bank and the PLA.

He and the trustees of the Couper Collection Charitable Trust insisted that they had, by adverse possession, become owners of parts of the river bed and the quayside wall and that they were entitled to keep their barges in situ by virtue of ‘ancient mooring rights’. They argued that they had been ‘harassed’ and ‘bullied’ in attempts to enforce their departure and accused the PLA of misfeasance in public office in becoming ‘subservient to the interests of powerful landowners’.

However, in a ruling which ran to more than 700 paragraphs, the Court dismissed each and every one of their claims and found that their permanent mooring of boats and pontoons alongside Albion Wharf obstructed landowners’ free access to the Thames and amounted to a ‘public nuisance’. The Court declared that the owners of adjoining land had legal title to the quayside and that the PLA, as owner of the river bed, was entitled to remove the artist’s collection from the Thames.

Calling for an outbreak of peace, Mr Justice Arnold concluded: “I do not know how much money has been spent on this litigation, but it is likely to run into millions of pounds.  Some of that money will have been public money.  I do not question the merit of Mr Couper’s work as an artist, the historic interest of his collection of barges or the public spiritedness of much of what he and the Trust have done.

“The fact remains, however, that the money could have been better spent on other things. The main reason for this state of affairs is that, since about March 1998, Mr Couper and the Trust have defied any attempt by the riparian owners or the Port of London Authority to control their activities. This saga must now come to an end.”