PHOTO: Netpol

Lancashire anti-fracking campaigners are understandably frustrated and angry at aggressive policing

Yesterday’s well-attended “silent” vigil outside of Kirkham Police Station was not quite as reticent or restrained as some may have expected, but with the benefit of hindsight, this is entirely understandable. Anti-fracking campaigners in Lancashire are frustrated and angry: indignant at the way their rights to protest have been trampled on, offended by the aggression and outright violence they have experienced at the hands of the police and exasperated at the failure of senior officers, the media and policymakers to listen to their concerns. No wonder most found it impossible to remain silent.

Superintendent Richard Robertshaw, who has tactical responsibility for the policing operation at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site, made little attempt yesterday to try and defuse growing tensions between the police and protesters. He appeared to go out of his way to feign ignorance about the reasons for people’s resentment at aggressive policing and the issues that had led to the calling the vigil.

Instead, he chose to highlight and condemn “the aggressive behaviour of some of the protesters” gathered for the vigil, which he said “shows the challenges we face in dealing with people who are quite aggressive and and quite forceful in how they want to express their views” and was, he said, “very regrettable”.

Far more regrettable, however, was the decision he took to deploy specialist public order officers from Lancashire Police’s Operation Support Unit – the very officers whose conduct local campaigners are complaining about – in response to what amounted to little more than noisy shouting and chanting. In common with all the anti-fracking protests in Lancashire to date, at no point was there was any genuine prospect of violence. Seldom have we witnessed anything quite so needlessly provocative and ill-considered.

Nothing can have made the case, outlined in the open letter to the Chief Constable, handed in yesterday, quite so strongly that Lancashire Police has a zero-tolerance attitude towards even the most minor disruption, or that it has given no thought whatsoever to the long-term legacy costs of a breakdown in trust, confidence and goodwill amongst local people who are opposed to fracking.

The imminent prospect of drilling at Preston New Road means Lancashire is set to become the frontline of opposition and resistance to fracking this summer. As a result, Lancashire Police knows it can expect its leadership of the policing operation at the site and whether it fulfils its legal duty to protect the right to freedom of assembly to face even greater local and national scrutiny.

Yesterday’s vigil was, therefore, only a first step. Incoming Chief Constable Andy Rhodes has now been formally requested to participate in person at an open public meeting and to answer the questions and concerns of local people.

In the interests of transparency and accountability, we hope he responds positively – and quickly.