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29 July 2017

Preston New Road: how a fracking protest became a movement

Anti-fracking protestors at Preston New Road in Lancashire have undertaken a month of "Rolling Resistance" events. But does building a national movement risk estranging those closer to home?

By India Bourke

Last Friday night in Lancashire, members of the UK’s anti-fracking movement huddled together amid straw-bales and vegetable stew to talk of protests past. Or rather, to sing about them: “Come, brethren of the water and let us assemble; to treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble,” opened a tune from 1611 about the enclosure of the fens. “It’s like the radical anarchist version of church,” one audience member joked. 

Clean energy needs little divine assistance when it comes to defeating the logic behind fracking: renewables are already setting UK records for generating more electricity than coal or gas. Yet as the government continues to tout fracking’s potential contributions to “energy security, growth and jobs”what is it that keeps long running opposition to the industry on its feet?

Fracking’s rural setting perhaps makes it easier to overlook the threats it poses to local wellbeing and the global climate. This certainly seemed to be the case last October, when the central government overturned a local council’s decision to prevent test drilling at Preston New Road, just outside Blackpool. The Cuadrilla-run site is now in the process of constructing up to four wells, two of which they have said will be drilled and fractured this year. 

Since January, concerned members of the public have been a continuous presence on the pavement opposite the site’s entry gates. Most come from the surrounding area, yet in recent weeks outside support has also swelled, thanks to a series of “Rolling Resistance” events coordinated by local anti-fracking groups and the national Reclaim the Power network.

On the weekend I visit, the atmosphere on the short stretch of rural highway feels almost carnival. A large speaker blares out music, while around two-hundred people gather to block the road-side entrance. There’s dancing, poetry, speeches and a stall selling organic veg. Cars at either end have to squeeze along the one remaining free lane – yet many toot their horns in appreciation as they do. “It’s like a tea-party today,” one police officer comments.

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“Dont’ frack the land that feeds you”: Franklin Scrase, from Tyddyn Teg co-operative farm in Wales, has brought his veg stall to the protest.

The surge in numbers has re-energised some of the protest’s most embedded members. A woman called Julie fought back tears as she thanked those gathered from around the country: “I’ve been a taxi service, I’ve been a B&B and I’m prepared to do that until this thing stops” John Tootle, who has welcomed visiting protestors on to his land, also believes that the police are more courteous around a larger group.

Liz and Anna from Reclaim the Power: “We’re going to win because we care more.”

In addition to this, the mass events are helping different groups from across the wider environmental movement to meet and find common ground. “I want my granddaughter to grow up in a world at least as beautiful as the one I grew up in,” says Alan Schofield, a speaker at last Friday’s event for Farmers-Against-Fracking.  

Alan grew up in nearby Blackpool and remembers a time when the city was “covered with market gardens”. Today he runs a successful, small-scale growing business of his own, as well as chairing the Organic Grower’s Alliance. He sums up the relationship between organic farming and fracking with a single word: soil. Fracking may be considered a “dirty word” by some, he says, but dirt is something we all need to embrace: pesticides have already polluted UK soils, and further damage from a potential spill of fracking chemicals is “too great to risk”.

Anna, Steve and Rebecca say “Yes to Kale, No to Shale”.

These thoughts echo the protest’s wider concern with protecting the vulnerable – both within the camp and beyond. “It’s like when a baby elephant falls into a water-hole; the whole family is immediately there to help”, says Roland, an 81 year-old retired probation officer who has travelled all the way up from Torquay in Devon. His tea is made for him by Nick Sheldrick, a 36 year-old former naval officer from Blackpool, who fell from his wheelchair when police-officers pulled him out of the way of lorry they were escorting into the site. “I want a clean Lancashire and a clean UK,” Nick says. 

A long-standing group of protestors camp out at the side of the road.

Yet the same emphasis on building a wide, issue-crossing movement, which appears to be giving the Preston Road protest such strength, might also risk breaking apart local support.

At first glance, dairy farmer Andy Pemberton from nearby Lytham St Annes has much in common with the growers at the protest. Unlike many dairy producers in the UK, his fifth generation family-farm sells directly to local customers and shops, and he is deeply concerned that a chemical spill at Preston New Road could make the region “an agricultural wasteland”. He was even planning on attending the Farmers-against-fracking event, before a calf got itself into trouble and needed his attention. 

There are limits, however, to Andy’s support for the protest. He doesn’t share the above vision of pesticide-free farming: “Organic is going back to the middle ages!” he says. Nor is he completely against the principle of fracking. Instead he has sympathy with many farmers who, like him, have been offered money from shale companies in exchange for tests and drilling – especially in a region struggling to keep jobs.

Furthermore, he fears that the protestors’ passion could come back to bite businesses like his. “My fear is they’re going to make more of it than they need,” he says of the possibility of a future chemical spill at the site, worrying that even if the contamination didn’t reach his fields, the stigma would still push his buyers away.

Andy Pemberton of Pemberton’s farm and farm-shop fears for his business.

Others are even more sceptical of the protestors’ presence.  A woman I meet at Andy’s farm tells me she thinks the way the protest is disrupting traffic is “immoral”, not to mention the cost of the significant police presence – with officers being drafted in from neighbouring forces.

Despite this, the protest’s expanded efforts appear to be suceeding. Fracking’s profile has been raised and its progress disrupted. Haulage companies are even pulling out of their contracts with Cuadrilla, with one cargo and freight company posting the following to its Facebook page: “If we had know this delivery was for the company Cuadrilla and to be used in the questionable fracking industry we quite simply would not have become involved. We can state that we will never knowingly work for Cuadrilla or any agents involved with Cuadrilla or the fracking industry again.”

It is also in the small acts that the protestors are winning over wider support. On the pavement opposite the site’s gates, 51 year-old Sarah from St Annes is sitting on a fold-out chair with three, well-groomed whippets. She sometimes crosses the road to speak to the more involved protestors, but mostly she sits there simply to be seen – by Cuadrilla, by the police and by any local people she knows who might drive by. “I’m a local and we need more locals here in order for them not to feel intimidated by what they’ve heard or seen on Facebook: if they drive past and see me, it’s something.”

Sarah from St Annes: “The ‘F’ word is almost a dirty word. I work in a local shop and you just can’t mention it.”

Sarah’s experience suggests that this protest has become, like many movements before it, as much about crossing divides between radical and reserved, urban and rural, employed and unemployed, North and South, as it is about crossing a road.

And perhaps this will be Preston New Road’s most lasting legacy. For when the numbers who have helped swelled the protest in recent weeks fall away, those remaining will know they are not alone. As the ancient lyrics performed by Three Acres a Cow last Friday evening has reminded them: history doesn’t forget.


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