A police watchdog has today called for two reviews into law enforcement tactics handling anti-fracking protests, in what has been described as “an authoritarian war” against the right to protest at a shale gas site in Lancashire.
In a new report, Netpol called for an “urgent” review into the national policy on policing anti-fracking protests as well as an external review to be done into the way police have conducted operations in Lancashire.
The report is based on its observations on how police have responded over the past year to mounting opposition towards shale gas exploration across the country.
It states that, “the scale of complaints about intimidating and confrontational police tactics at Preston New Road in Lancashire means an external review of the policing operation there is now essential.”
Speaking at the report’s launch outside the gates of the Preston New Road fracking site, Green party MEP Keith Taylor told DeSmog UK:
“The government is putting pressure on police forces to act as their legal enforcers, in an authoritarian war against our right to protest.”
“What I’d like to see is the police realising that they live on the same planet as the protectors. I’ve witnessed aggression, and intimidation and I don’t know how the police manage to clear their conscience and behave the way they do.”
“This protest is essential because the planet is in real danger.”
Report author Kevin Blowe, who also spoke at the launch event, told DeSmog UK that the policing at Preston New Road could have far-reaching and long-term impacts.
“A major concern is in the long term, if you don’t fix this problem, you’re going to be left with severe distrust, a serious lack of confidence in the police that is going to be impossible to fix. What I find genuinely astonishing is how little the police seem to care about this.”
He said Netpol believed the tactics employed so far have been counter-productive.
“Because of the degree of oppressive policing that has happened, it’s directly led to an increase in more civil disobedience tactics, because if you’re going to get arrested, you may as well get arrested for something that matters.”
Police at Preston New Road
National attention has generally focused on the mounting tensions between protesters and the police at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire, where local protesters have been active since January.
Among the issues highlighted by Netpol include the scale of police presence, and the number of officers which use “confrontational and aggressive tactics”.
In May, more than 300 people signed a letter to Lancashire’s Chief Constable that complained about the police’s behaviour. And in July, at the height of a month of action against fracking in the area, the police were reported having made 96 arrests, and during a 19 day period 165 “uses of force” were recorded.
Last month, police were recorded dragging an 85-year-old campaigner across a road outside Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road frack site. Following the incident, the Lancashire police said they would “review our tactics”.
A video showing police officers joking about arrest tactics is also being investigated by Lancashire Police, news website DrillorDrop reported. The video reportedly shows officers suggesting arrests were a useful tactic to divert protesters’ attention away from delivery lorries approaching Cuadrilla’s site.
Meanwhile, media reports have documented complaints by anti-fracking activists who have accused police in Lancashire of “colluding” with Cuadrilla.
In a letter seen by DeSmog UK, Cuadrilla detailed how it decided to break its planning rules to bring a fracking drill on site after “detailed consultation with Lancashire police”. Lancashire Constabulary denies recommending that Cuadrilla breach its planning conditions. No details of the consultation have been released, however.
As such, “Police tactics appear deliberately intent on making it as difficult as possible for local people to effectively oppose the activities of the onshore oil and gas industry,” Netpol's report states.
Miranda Cox, a local councilor who was recently prosecuted for obstructing the highway while protesting at the Preston New Road site, agrees that the tactics employed in Lancashire make the police a divisive force in the community. She told DeSmog UK:
“The police have been put in this position where they are being forced to essentially undermine their own community relations with us.
“The levels of trust between ourselves and police has took a serious battering over the last year. I used to think I had a reasonable level of understanding and good relationship with the police, now I feel that has been totally undermined because of the way they’ve behaved.
“The consequences of this, across the country, are quite severe, because there is a distrust now of the police.
“I’ve talked to people, who are not what you’d call regular protesters, who have changed their opinion of the police and how they expect to be policed, over the last few months, and that truly saddens me.”
“There needn’t be an issue between protesters and the police, and there should be an issue between the company and protesters.”
Reacting to the Netpol report, Simon Kempton, operational lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, told DeSmog UK:
“Our core purpose is public safety. We fully respect the right of individuals to peaceful protest and lawful activity, remaining impartial to the protest in question. Officers are trained in the minimum use of force and only when necessary. Ultimately, officers would prefer to be policing their communities, however accept that where there is a need to police a protest, it is their responsibility to maintain the peace.”
A Lancashire police spokesperson told DeSmog UK:
“Our aim as always is to ensure is a consistent and coordinated policing response and ensure a balance between the rights of people to peacefully protest, together with the rights of the wider public, including local businesses, to go about their lawful activities.
“We aim to prevent, where possible, crime and disorder, but if it does occur we will provide an effective, lawful and proportionate response.”
A growing number of restrictions on how anti-fracking campaigners are allowed to protest at shale gas sites across the UK are increasingly being sought by companies, police and local councils – the restrictions include both blanket injunctions on protests, and limits on the methods allowed and the hours of protest.
Given this “particularly eventful year”, Netpol says, an “urgent review” is needed of what the group says is an outdated national policy on the policing of anti-fracking protests.
In 2015, a guidance document entitled “Policing linked to Onshore Oil and Gas Operations” was issued to forces. Since then the National Police Chiefs Council has said it will conduct a review into this guidance – the latest iteration of this promise came last January. According to Netpol, though, there has been no progress on this.
“So much has happened since then  but it seems this guidance still forms the basis for police operational decision-making and planning,” the report reads.
Politicians are increasingly becoming involved in the fracking debate.
Green Party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, being dragged away by police from the entrance to Third Energy’s fracking site at Kirby Misperton earlier this month. Green MP Caroline Lucas, the party’s other co-leader, was arrested at a fracking protest in Balcombe, Sussex, in 2013.
The Conservatives were isolated in the run-up to the June general election as the only party to continue to support fracking.
Liberal Democract MP Tim Farron, who contested that election as leader of the party, expressed his respect and admiration for the protesters gathered at the site today, saying:
“While you are here, you are drawing attention not only to this site but to the issue of fracking and shale gas more generally.”
“Bit by bit we convince people that there is an alternative to this. The alternative to this is not no energy, it’s better energy.”
Photo: Rob McEwen. Updated 20/11/2017: A comment from the Police Federation and Lancashire Constabulary was added.