Lancashire Police under fire as senior officers ignore violence against anti-fracking protesters

PHOTO: Cheryl Atkinson, Facebook

The start of Reclaim the Power’s month of Rolling Resistance on Saturday has seen the blockade of shale gas company Cuardilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire intensify, with every warning about the consequences of a highly partisan and oppressive policing operation ignored by Lancashire Police.

Just a few days in, there is already video evidence of the site’s security staff violently attacking protesters locked onto each other outside the main entrance and of the site manager restraining and punching one campaigner. The police, who have a legal duty not only to facilitate but to protect the right to freedom of assembly, failed on both occasions to intervene, even though a number of people were injured. Only after considerable publicity (including pressure on social media from Netpol) has an investigation finally begun.

This indifference is in stark contrast to the huge number of officers focusing on the protesters and their willingness to pounce on and assault any demonstrator for the slightest infringement or minor disruption.

In one case this included the vindictive targeting of a disabled campaigner, someone who has previously told us she has been picked out by officers on route to the site and whose car was seized by police for tooting her horn “in a manner causing alarm, distress or annoyance”.

A private security guard kneels on a protester’s head, 4 July PHOTO: Kristian Buus

Cuadrilla site manager puts protester in a headlock, 4 July PHOTO: Kristian Buus

Over the last week, there were a small number of arrests but everyone who was detained was subsequently taken to a police station and then released without charge.

It is little wonder that in common with previous long-running protests, local opponents of fracking in Lancashire feel the local police are openly collaborating with the oil and gas industry against them.

As we warned, this is the direct result of senior officers’ failure to listen to residents’ frustrations about the restriction on their rights and the aggression they have experienced. Lancashire Police appears to have learnt nothing, too, from criticisms of policing at Balcombe and Barton Moss.

Instead, the Chief Constable has so far rebuffed the request, in an open letter Netpol helped to coordinate, to attend a public event to discuss concerns the policing operation, choosing to delegated responsibility straight back to Superintendent Richard Robershaw, the officer running the policing operation at Preston New Road.

Campaigners see Robershaw as precisely the wrong person to listen to their indignation about they way they have been treated – the whole point was to go over his head to the senior officers he is accountable to, because of the failures of the operation to date.

Councillor Miranda Cox is arrested, 3 July. PHOTO: Kristian Buus

As we have pointed out before, it is almost as if Lancashire Police has abandoned any interest in the long-term legacy costs of their operation on relations with significant sections of the local community. This is despite a YouGov poll showing that up to two-thirds of people in Lancashire are opposed to fracking.

At a national level, this belligerent stance seems to find favour, however, with the National Police Chiefs Council. Just last week, the NPCC told us it had chosen an Assistant Chief Constable from Lancashire, Terry Woods, to become its National Lead on Shale Gas and Oil Exploration. In doing so, it indicated its view that Woods’ local experience meant he was “uniquely placed to assess what needs to be done”.

Woods is responsible for reviewing and updating national guidance for forces around the country on policing anti-fracking protests. His appointment suggests it now far more likely that other communities around the country who are facing the possibility of oil or gas exploration in their areas will also face the same aggressive model of policing adopted in Lancashire.

Ultimately Lancashire Police is entirely liable for the extremely intimidating situation it has created. If must start reminding Cuardilla’s security guards they have no more powers than the average citizen and face arrest if they assault protesters. It must act if security staff ignore this warning and break the law. It must start restraining its own officers too and it must agree to meet local people and hear their concerns and their anger.

Otherwise, it now seems inevitable that one of the next challenges for new Chief Constable Andy Rhodes is the serious prospect of legal action to protect local people’s fundamental rights.