A new ruling against three fracking protestors has sent shivers of unease through activist communities this week, after Judge Robert Altham sentenced each of the men to over a year in jail.
This is the first time such severe sentences have been given for environmental protest since 1932, when ramblers trespassed across moorland at Kinder Scout and gave birth to the right-to-roam movement. In 1993, seven people were imprisoned after opposing the construction of the M3 motorway, but that was for breaking an injunction, rather than for first-time offences of “public nuisance”, as in this latest case.
“Draconian” is how barrister Stephanie Harrison QC, who specialises in human rights law, subsequently describes the judgement to the New Statesman. “This historic sentencing is disproportionate and harsh,” adds Dave Timms, head of Political Affairs at Friends of the Earth, “Our thoughts are with these protesters who acted out of conscience to protect the planet.”
So will the judgement deter future opponents of fracking from protest? Or will it perhaps have the opposite effect, and further galvanise an already wide and passionate movement?
The protest took place outside the Cuadrilla-owned fracking site at Preston New Road, in Lancashire, where, over the course of July 2017, a campaign group called Reclaim the Power had been helping co-ordinate a mass protest-event.
As I reported at the time, this influx of new activists offered their support to the local people and long-term campaigners who had been keeping a presence at the remote site for months. Initially, their activities were mostly limited to gatherings on part of the road outside the gates – including speeches, lunches and even a carnival. But as the month wore on, police clashed with protestors who “locked-on” to each other.
Then, on the morning of 25 July, Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, Richard Roberts, 36, and Richard Loizou, 31 (plus Julian Brock, 47, who was also given a 12 month suspended sentence after pleading guilty during the trial), decided to take things a step further: they boarded the roofs of four separate lorries that were making deliveries to the site.
The men immobilised the vehicles completely for almost a hundred hours, which halted work at the fracking site, and also caused significant disruption to traffic along the narrow country road. This led Judge Altham to criticise the defendants for treating the public as “necessary and justified collateral damage”. “Given the disruption caused in this case, only immediate custody can achieve sufficient punishment,” he said.
Yet perhaps the only thing that is clear from the wider story of the Preston New Road protest is that the line between “right” and “wrong” is not clear at all.
In 2015, Lancashire county council rejected Cuadrilla’s planning application to frack the site, citing visual impact and unacceptable noise. Yet this decision by local government was later overturned by the then-Communities secretary, Sajid Javid.
Then there is the contentious issue of fracking’s wider contribution to climate change. On the one side, energy minister Claire Perry argues that it will help achieve energy security and the “transition to a lower-carbon economy”. But campaigners push back strongly against these claims, pointing out that preventing catastrophic levels of climate change will require abandoning most of the gas already uncovered.
And even local opinion about the protest seems split. When I reported from the site just a few days before the lorry-surfing incident, some people did feel like they were being treated as “collateral damage”: one woman told me she thought the disruption was “immoral”, and was deeply angry at public money being spent on policing the site.
Yet for each criticism, others were lending the protestors their strong support. As traffic squeezed past the protestors gathered on the road in front of the site’s gates, many cars would honk their horns in short, cheery toots of encouragement. “I’m a local and we need more locals here in order for them not to feel intimidated by what they’ve seen or heard on Facebook,” 51-year-old Sarah (pictured below), from nearby St Annes, told me in reference to the clashes between some protestors and police.
For these reasons, the decision to charge and sentence the defendants under the heavy-duty law of “public nuisance”, instead of more a minor offence, such as road obstruction, is raising some serious concerns.
The aforementioned Stephanie Harrison QC, at Garden Court Chambers, fears rulings like this are pushing back against fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly. “Lots of lawful protests cause obstructions on the road, so it is tricky to draw the line between lawful and unlawful protest,” she says.
Harrison has challenged previous attempts to limit the rights of campaigners, and is currently appealing decisions to grant energy firms Ukog and Ineos civil injunctions against “persons unknown”, instead of against specific named individuals or groups, as has previously been standard. Such a sweeping extension of the injunction process could see anyone obstructing the highway jailed or fined, she warns, with an act of resistance like slow-walking becoming an outlawed offence.
“Going after the more committed militant activists can act as a deterrent to other protestors who might be thinking about getting involved,” Harrison says.
She fears the new injunction extension could be used to target more and more low-key local activists who are perhaps less likely to have access to the financial resources to challenge the charge, and risk having to pay the claimants’ costs if they lose.
Kevin Blowe is a co-ordinator for the Police Monitoring Network (Netpol) and trains legal observers for the Green and Black Cross, who provide practical support to protestors. He agrees with Harrison that the fate of the three protesters sets a dangerous precedent.
“You would think the sentencing would reflect the fact that they [the defendents] were acting on grounds of conscience,” he says. Most people who are arrested and found guilty for activities at non-violent protests tends to get conditional discharge and a fine, so “the judge’s decision to imprison them is extreme – this is about sending a warning to other people as well”.
Yet Blowe is also hopeful that outrage at the perceived injustice of the ruling will also help strengthen the wider anti-fracking campaign: “The people I’ve spoken to in the last 24 hours are really angry about what has happened – and there’s the potential that even more people decide to take a stand.”
“If people throughout history hadn’t been prepared to break the law for reasons of conscience, then change would never have happened. And I think these men will be retrospectively vindicated in a similar way to the suffragettes,” he adds.
The ruling is also particularly timely. Energy firm Cuadrilla has announced that it will finally begin fracking the Preston New Road site “in the next few weeks”. With 20,000 scientists warning of climate change’s existential threat, history may yet judge very differently what the UK courts have this week condemned.