At around 12 noon on Tuesday 23rd February 2016, grandmother Linda Foord thought she was being a good Samaritan by offering tea and cakes to police officers and protesters outside a proposed drilling site in Surrey. But rather than a smile and gratitude, Linda was given a verbal warning and told she risked being arrested by the officers for obstructing the highway outside the Horse Hill site, near Horley, Surrey.
The experience has coloured her thinking about the way the establishment is supporting the fracking industry at the expense of lawful protest by local residents against a company looking to exploit the possibility of oil beneath the Surrey countryside. Such has been Linda’s experience that she is questioning whether the police presence is good use of public money as she believes it is preventing a lawful protest against drilling in the county as carried out by the UK Oil and Gas (UKOG).
Local residents protesting at the drilling site fear their human rights are being violated by police only too eager to back big companies involved in drilling. Linda, from Essex, who was visiting the site to show solidarity with the local community in Horley, said: “Both the police and the public have been camped outside in the cold for weeks. All I wanted was to offer the officer a warm cup of tea and a slice of cake, but instead of some gratitude, I was threatened with arrest.”
“Don’t they have better things to do with their time? There isn’t a huge amount of protestors here and up to at least five or six police vehicles, including riot vans full of police at any one time. Where do they find the money for this disproportionate and heavy-handed use of public resources?”
“It’s very intimidating. Why aren’t they out trying to catch criminals instead of peaceful protestors? Officers patrol the fence around the drilling site when they should be stopping these huge trucks carrying toxic chemicals. They are here to protect the drilling company, not us.”
“We can’t let UKOG ruin this community – our water, our roads, our land, our livelihood and the future for our grandkids is too precious. We can’t allow these oil and gas companies to poison our beautiful country as they have in the US and Australia. We are local residents determined to protect our families from harm, not domestic extremists!”
Are Surrey Police criminalising peaceful protest?
A Surrey resident, Dave, added: “It’s perfectly possible for police to marshall the local traffic past the tankers, but this is not being done in order to portray the protests in a bad light.”
A local protester called Collin, who is currently staying at the Horse Hill Protection Camp, added: “I am left very confused by the behaviour of the Surrey Police force. When asked why they are here, the officers insist they want to ‘facilitate our peaceful protest’, but as soon as we begin to engage in peaceful protest, they immediately threaten us with arrest for doing so!”
“It is a settled point of law that peaceful protest can often be a ‘reasonable’ use of the highway, even though it inevitably causes some disruption to ordinary life. But each time we go to use the highway for this ‘reasonable’ purpose, we are being told that we are committing the offence of ‘Obstructing the Highway’, and threatened with arrest if we do not desist. And by this means, the police are intimidating people out of their lawful right to participate in a peaceful protest. It appears to me that the police are not accounting for our ECHR Article 10 (freedom of expression) & Article 11 (freedom of assembly) Rights, and hence these rights are being unlawfully violated.”
“I have tried to engage with Surrey Police at every level to express my concerns about the seeming anomilies of their policing of the Horse HIll protest, but it has become clear that such a pursuit is futile, so I am now in the process of taking legal advice to see if their is any external mechanism through which they can be caused to review their approach.”
Fracking Trucks Vs Anti-Fracking Nanas
Julie Daniels from The Nanas, a Lancashire group opposed to fracking, said their presence looked to have changed the way the protest was policed. As soon as her group arrived at the site on Tuesday, truck movements stopped and the need to remove protesters put on hold. She said: “A flurry of Nanas arrived with tea, cake, smiles and deep gratitude as the sun came out. What didn’t come out though were any more trucks. According to those on camp, there were at least three incidents where everything appeared to be getting readied for a truck arrival; police gathered in large numbers, the van for ‘protester removal’ operations arrived and evidence gatherers could be seen, yet no trucks came. The consensus by all on site was that the presence of the Nanas would have made it a PR nightmare and they chose not to take the risk. It’s a sad fact but mowing down older ladies is perceived very differently from manhandling younger citizens.”
Cheshire Police Vs IGas
Meanwhile, the anti-fracking lobby has found support from an unexpected quarter – the Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner John Dwyer. He has written to shale gas exploration company, IGas demanding they reimburse his force to the tune of £200,000 after officers evicted protesters from a site at Upton, near Cheshire – only for the company to announce three weeks after the eviction that it was abandoning its plans to sink a test hole.
A clearly angry commissioner wants IGAS to reimburse Cheshire Constabulary for the time and manpower used to evict protestors from the site. Dwyer has asked IGas to reimburse the £200,000 cost of the “wholly unnecessary operation”. Dwyer said: “I am astonished that you have made such an announcement only some three weeks after a complex eviction process, which risked the safety of the public, protesters, bailiffs and police. I find it incredible that a company that describes itself as a responsible operator, with the highest standards of health, safety, and environmental protection, would have allowed the bailiff’s action to proceed and risk serious injury to all involved whilst at the same time deciding not to proceed with its interests at the site.”
“It is unfortunate that your company has acted so irresponsibly and failed to understand local community concerns and risks.”
IGas had applied to explore the Upton site’s potential to produce gas from the coal beneath the ground in a process called coal-bed methane (CBM) extraction. The company said seismic surveys showed the area was less promising than hoped for CBM, but it has not ruled out future applications to investigate shale gas potential at the site.