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A lesson from history - the untold Eden project scandal

Paul Finch reads a riveting account of how a Cornish David beat the Establishment Goliath

I have just finished reading the architect Jonathan Ball’s account of how, as co-creator of the Eden Project, he was forced out of the client team, denied his legal claim to intellectual property rights, lost his practice, put his family house at risk, and only recovered his life after a prolonged legal struggle with the forces of the Establishment, who lined up to destroy him.

This is not putting it too dramatically and, if you have any doubt about it, read Ball’s book, The Other Side of Eden, yourself. It is not a work of literary genius but, as an account of what happens when a disparate group of people decide that an individual has become a threat to their own operational comfort, it is riveting.

Ball, who served for many years as honorary secretary of the RIBA, was approached in 1994 by a Dutchman called Tim Smit, who had created a Cornish tourist attraction, the Lost Gardens of Heligan. He had an idea for a great Millennium project and, having spoken to key Cornwall movers and shakers, had been told by all of them that he needed to speak to Ball.

The upshot of their first meeting was a rapid agreement to work together. Ball proposed bringing in an international architect capable of responding to the scale of ambition and the ideas of the two principals. Thus the Grimshaw partnership was brought on board and, working at risk with Arup, they produced for the Millennium Commission the spectacular designs which became the flagship project (though Ball was excluded from the invitations when Tony Blair came visiting).

What went wrong? What emerged in the court case that provides the dramatic conclusion to this disturbing saga was a concerted attempt to freeze out Jonathan Ball – and the idea that he had any intellectual property rights in the project – even though they had been put into a legal agreement.

Critically, that agreement had involved a London firm of solicitors, Druces & Attlee, acting for Jonathan Ball in his personal capacity. Shockingly and disgracefully, the firm later denied that it had ever acted for Ball – and in a letter to the trustees of the Eden Project in 1998, partner Toby Stroh stated: ‘I have never acted for Jonathan Ball in his personal capacity, or at all in connection with the Eden project or any other.’

Fast forward to the end of 2003 in the High Court. It had been established beyond doubt that Stroh/Druces & Attlee had indeed acted for Ball. The judge asked Stroh if he could explain why the words quoted above had been stated. Stroh replied: ‘Those words are a mistake and they should not be there.’  That is a very polite way of putting it; the tissue of lies surrounding Ball’s role in the project were laid bare in the courtroom, including a statement by the Eden Project’s one-time chief executive, one Evelyn Thurlby.

She had excluded Ball from meetings and had banned him from receiving minutes and documents, even though he was a director of the company. ‘I call the meetings. I decide who attends,’ she had declared. A perceptive question from the judge elicited the following: ‘I worked very closely with Tim Smit and I was told (by him) that … Jonathan was being manoeuvred out of the project.’

In the end, Jonathan Ball was awarded £1,865,000 in damages and a contribution of £1,775,000 towards his legal costs over more than a decade, all from Druces & Attlee (or, no doubt, their insurers). Smit was never called as a witness by the defence, perhaps not surprisingly. Despite being Dutch, his surname is a new example of cockney rhyming slang.

The Other Side of Eden, by Jonathan Ball, (paperback £20) is published by FootSteps Press

Readers' comments (4)

  • Institutional or, if you prefer, establishment corruption, is rampant across all walks of life in the UK. Some of us have known this for a long time. Many are only just recognising its existence. Coming to terms with its implications has still a very long way to go.

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  • So what was their reason for trying to 'freeze out' Jonathan Ball - I remember him as clearly having a big personality - but then the people who 'get things done' very often do, so was it simply a clash of big personalities that escalated into litigation?
    And what of Stroh - I see he's still a partner in Druces LLP.
    A senior lawyer caught lying through his teeth, so that's all right then!

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  • Maybe one should consider it as 'normal'.

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  • According to the BBC report of the court case (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cornwall/3816713.stm)

    "Mr Ball left the Eden Project in 1997 after falling out with Mr Smit.

    A legal dispute between the two co-founders of the vast biomes was settled amicably in 2002 and Mr Ball is now a lifetime Friend of the Eden Project."

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