Balcombe resident Kathryn McWhirter spent some of last weekend at the protest camp in Barton Moss, Salford, where energy company IGas has permission to drill a vertical test well.
It’s bleak. Between a motorway and a major road, a lane straddles an embankment, a ditch on one side, and a slope down to flat, muddy fields on the other, stretching off to trees and pylons on the horizon. We’re up from Balcombe to visit old friends at the IGas drill site at Barton Moss.
The site is on land owned by Peel Holdings (also landlords of the new BBC headquarters in nearby Salford). A lone security guard behind the high fence notes our number plate. The site is apparently prepared now, waiting for the drill and other industrial kit to arrive this week, just in time for Christmas. A field away, there are a couple of houses, then the shale gas protester camp along the narrow verge.
No police to be seen at the site this weekend, despite arrests on Friday. ‘Barton Moss Northern Gas Gala’ - the banner flutters in a leafless tree. The strong breeze is coming from the west. A guy with a Liverpudlian accent is carting straw to make a windshield just two bales high.
“From day one it was brutal,” he says. “The police are using excessive force. Friday’s arrests were shameful, really vulnerable people and an injury that required an emergency operation. There’s this old lady, Anne, in her 80s, a group of big strong policemen pushed her until she ended up out of the protest.”
We take refuge in the canvas kitchen with a woman from the Fylde coast. We know her already from weekends in Balcombe. “The police here are absolutely awful,” she says. “It makes Balcombe seem like a festival in comparison, although they were bad enough there. They’re used to the football matches here. It’s as if they’re treating us like football hooligans.”
We watch videos on a kitchen laptop, see bruises, broken skin, one broken bone. It’s similar to Balcombe, but yes, tougher, with police pushing forward in intimidating numbers along the narrow road. “We think they are trying to provoke violent response, so the Government can introduce a law to stop protests,” says one young man through beard and bacon sandwich.
A local man drives up with his daughter and a boot-full of provisions: milk, vegetables, fruit, and we drive off to Eccles to clear a chaotic hardware shop of hot water bottles and strings of tinsel. “There’s other ways they can get energy without fracking,” the owner approves. “I don’t trust it. I’m right behind the camp. You keep warm now and have a happy Christmas.”
Back on Barton Moss, Bob, the tenant in the farmhouse a field away from the drill site is keeping neutral. “You can’t beat it. It’s what the human race does.” I tell him about fracking: pollution of air, water, industrialisation of the countryside, wells every couple of miles, polluted water that nobody can clean up, drilling noise. Ah, noise, he says, as a helicopter takes off from Manchester City Airport a field away in the other direction. Now noise, that doesn’t bother him.
At the camp, the wind is rising. Last weekend the camp was almost completely demolished. No one is using tent pegs any more, it’s all held down by long stakes. The Balcombe composting loos, in a heap after the storm, will withstand tonight’s winds.
In the ‘meeting room’ (easy chairs, three walls four bales high, tarpaulin flapping overhead), Simon Pook of the Manchester firm of Robert Lizar Solicitors is taking statements. He, along with Richard Brigden, Barrister of Garden Court North, is representing the arrested.
The arrests so far have been for obstructing the highway. Why always this charge? Is it because there’s no legal aid for obstructing the highway, and it’s not an imprisonable offence? The police have been trying to get people arrested and bailed not to come back to the camp. Pook and Brigden have argued in court that imposing bail conditions not to return to the camp may disproportionately infringe the rights of the protesters (under Article 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights, Pooks explains).
And how do we now feel about the police, someone asks? We’d been shocked over the summer, as Balcombe residents, to experience the police in military mode, defending an invading industry and opposing local peaceful protest. It was a complete breakdown in trust in the people who should be protecting us.
Tea lights are flickering in jam jars. Night is coming, and through the raging wind it’s hard to hear. With hugs, we leave to return to Balcombe.
People of Barton Moss, Irlam, Salford, Manchester, please support the Protector Camp at Barton Moss. It’s cold and hard, and they are working to defend our shared environment. Fracking is coming any week now to a field near you. What they need most is people, support on the ground. Not necessarily walking in front of lorries, but there on the sidelines, and showing that local people care. They could do with a few more bales of straw as well. Go to www.facebook.com/frackfreeGtrManchester for more information.