Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Barton Moss: Rise of the Resistance


A traditional northern welcome for Igas
First on the scene were the jolly bobbies of the Police Liaison Team in their blue tabards. They chatted amiably to the gaggle of forty or so scruffy people waiting in the cold of a November morning at the top of Barton Moss Lane. 
Then came the massed ranks of the regular coppers, debussing from their line of vans and forming up in lines. Behind them, keeping their distance, were the even less charismatic Tactical Assistance Unit (TAU).
The day's convoy was not far behind, a lorry load of what looked like junk and another with some sort of pumping equipment, bracketed front and rear by police vans. Faced with an immovable line of protesters it was soon stopped dead.
This was Day One of the Northern Gas Gala.
Barton Moss really is the edge of town. On one side is the great Manchester, Salford and Stockport urban conglomeration. On the other it is countryside as far as Warrington. Historically, Stephenson’s Rocket once ran along the nearby railway. It has the first canal in Britain, the Bridgewater, and also the last, the Manchester Ship Canal. Now it is the front line of the new technology of hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking is a form of unconventional oil that is currently the target of resistance from campaigners around the world. Their concerns are the air pollution, noise, gas flaring and large number of lorries associated with a fracking site, large amounts of clean water that needs to be brought in and large amounts of waste water needing to be taken out. They fear underground bore holes can crack and methane can end up where it’s not wanted: in the atmosphere, in the ground water and in people.

This combination of local and global concerns makes the anti-fracking movement a diverse one and that was reflected by the crowd gathered on that first morning. A makeshift camp had sprung up on the verge next to Barton Moss Lane and the campers had been joined by local supporters.
The famous Manchester rain was absent, but the Greater Manchester Police and were present in force. A quarter of the mile down the lane the onshore oil and gas company Igas had built a secure compound in which they were preparing for a drilling operation to determine whether or not the area was suitable for fracking.

Day One of the Northern Gas Gala
With the convoy blocking half the A57, the police and the campaigners squared off. The police commander asked politely if the way could be cleared for lorries to get to the site, and he was politely told that opposition to the work would be non-violent, but also non-negotiable.

Then the pushing started. Slowly the police moved the blockade of young and old, men and women down Barton Moss Lane. Some people pushed harder than others, and soon the first arrests were being made.

Rob Edwards from Glossop had become the first arrest of the campaign the previous day. He turned up again the next day and promptly became the second person to be arrested as well.

Finally, two hours after the operation started, the convoy of vehicles was safely in the Igas compound.

That first day set the tone for the first month of the campaign: the ‘slow walk’, the pushing and the arrests – a suspiciously regular five a day, which usually occurred just after the ritual change over from regular police to TAU.

Anne Power, superhero
Usually the pace of the walk was set by 82 year old Anne Power, a local Green Party candidate and formidable campaigner. She did not move fast enough for GMP and was regularly removed from the blockade ‘for her own safety’. As a result has Anne has probably now been arrested more often than any other octogenarian in Manchester.

Anne’s arrests did not endear GMP to the Protectors of Barton Moss, as the campaigners styled themselves. Neither did an incident on Friday 13th December when police plunged into the crowd to make a seemingly random arrest, propelling disabled Protector Chris Pannel into a ditch in the process and breaking his leg.

Meanwhile the Manchester weather did its bit to make the Protectors’ lives as challenging as possible. The Christmas storms blew away tents and left the composting loos leaning at a jaunty angle. A delivery of hay bales made the situation tolerable, but life on the Moss was a daily struggle for survival. But still the ‘slow walks’ went on, interspersed with regular lock-ons and the occasional stunt such as Father Christmas delivering a wind turbine to the Igas gates.
Then at the start of January everything changed. 

The first the Protectors knew about it was when someone spotted a report on the Greater Manchester Police Facebook page of a flare being fired at a GMP helicopter landing at nearby Manchester City airport. Nobody in camp saw anything and it was assumed this might have been a New Year’s Eve firework someone had let off late from one of the nearby housing estates.

However the police immediately put out a statement saying the flare had been fired from the camp with the intent of bringing down the helicopter, with an ominous reference to the fatal crash in Glasgow the previous November. Two days later the camp was searched, but no evidence was found. Inquiries in the Brookhouse and Irlem estates, and an appeal to drivers on the busy A57 that passed the airport, failed to produce any other witnesses, but GMP continued to report that it had been deliberately fired at the helicopter by the camp.

Barton Moss drill site
The Protectors had good reason to be unhappy with GMP after this. Not only were they now being labelled as terrorists, but the search of the tents had resulted in all their bedding being soaked by the rain – not recommended if you are camping out in sub-zero temperatures. However animosity towards the police was usually restricted to the pages of social media, and on the ‘slow walks’ the incident was generally regarded as a bad joke.

However the police were definitely not laughing now. Arrests became more regular and more violent. And also more bizarre. Dr Steven Peers, for example, was arrested for ‘drink driving’ whilst sober and on foot. Equally strange was the police turning up and filling the holes dug by the Protectors for their ablutions with concrete. Meanwhile there was a steady flow of Protectors being taken away in ambulances after suffering various unfortunate interactions with the police.

GMP remove the Public Footpath sign
On the same day as the alleged flare, another curious incident took place. Barton Moss Lane, which is clearly signed as a private road, is also a Public Footpath, but that Saturday a couple of officers were photographed removing the Public Footpath sign from the top of the lane. The Rights of Way officer at Stockport Council was contacted and said he knew nothing about this and that, as far as he was aware, the lane was still a footpath.

With most of the arrests made being for Obstruction of the Public Highway, this was a very important point. These charges would only stand if Barton Moss Lane was indeed a Public Highway. The courts, which had been taking an increasingly dim view of GMP tactics and which were regularly releasing campaigners on unconditional bail even if they had been arrested for breach of previous bail conditions, would have to decide.


However the police weren’t the only people having a pop at the Protectors.

Rally at Barton Moss
13th January was a beautiful morning on the Moss. The previous day there had been an amazing turn out for the first Barton Moss Solidarity Sunday with eight hundred people from across the country gathering at the camp for speeches. There were no police, no arrests and no trouble. There weren't that many the next morning to meet the regular Monday convoy, but when the lorries arrived they were still met by a wall of Protectors across Barton Moss Lane.

The media had chosen that morning to descend on us in force. We had Daybreak TV, Channel 4, local BBC, a freelance snapper and others. Various Protectors were interviewed, but for once the main story wasn't us. Instead the real news that day was that the opposition, AWOL for the last three months, had finally showed up.

The Igas PR machine had been sounding like a stuck record since November, claiming the Protectors were disrupting local people whilst the media was clearly showing local people disrupting Igas. However the rest of the fracking industry was not intending to take all this lying down.
Consultants Control Risks had produced a report of the anti-fracking movement. It ended with four recommendations for overcoming the opposition. Firstly, acknowledge past grievances; secondly, engage with communities; thirdly, reduce impacts and fourthly, create more winners.
Interesting, then, what happened that Monday morning in January.

Lord Browne, former boss of climate villains BP, chair of fracking company Cuadrilla and advisor to the Cabinet was on the TV acknowledging that “it’s not all been perfect in the USA” and promising tougher regulations here. The Prime Minister appeared at a fracking site in Lincolnshire to announce that councils could keep twice the usual amount of Business Rates from frackers. There was no community engagement, but Igas had been doing a bit of that, although they would soon get bored.

Theo Simon on a lorry
So the opposition was firing all its ammunition at us. The Protectors’ response was to climb onto the first three lorries that tried to drive down the lane. Theo Simon from the band Seize the Day led the way and he was followed Lardo Fumblefoot, not bad for an old Druid with arthritic knees. Druids haven’t changed, it seems, just the Romans are different.

But were actions louder than words, or would the government and industry spin machine win out? Time would tell.


On Wednesday 12th February, Judge Khalid Qureshi, in Manchester Magistrates Court, finally ruled that Barton Moss Lane was a Private Road and Public Footpath and not a Public Highway. Greater Manchester Police had by now arrested over a hundred people and it looked like they would have to drop the charges against almost all of them.

For two days after the ruling no convoy passed up or down the lane.

Vanda Shivett arrested 15 Feb 2014
Then the police returned with a violence seemingly fortified, and not mollified, by the collapse of their legal case. They started arresting the Protectors once more, hospitalising mother-of-five Vanda Gillett in the process. But the increase in the level of aggression by the TAU was not the only surprise.

The police were now making arrests for the crime of Aggravated Trespass. This offence, from the notorious 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, has been widely used against environmental protesters in the past. However the bill clearly defined trespass as only being possible on land to which the public did not have access. As Judge Qureshi had ruled Barton Moss Lane was a Public Footpath, this charge required the police to claim that the Igas lorries, or the police themselves, somehow had priority over pedestrians on the footpath, a feat of legal legerdemain that has no precedent.


UK's largest anti-fracking rally
The people of Manchester meanwhile were watching all this on TV, listening to it on the radio and reading about it in their papers. A BBC poll at the start of the Gala showed 43% of Mancunians supported fracking, but one four months later by the Manchester Evening News revealed 73% now opposed the process.

At the start of March the campaign put the word out that we’d like a little show of support by the people of Manchester. The result was a carnival of 1500 people on the streets of England’s second city and it all ended peacefully with everyone doing the hokey cokey outside the National Football Museum. Manchester was now a city united against fracking.

Bez at Barton Moss
We weren’t in any of the big papers, but it appeared we were covered in most of the regional press. Fracking, it seems, was not a national issue, but it was a local issue all over the county.  

We were also starting to attract celebrity visitors to the camp including Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, actress Maxine Peake and Happy Mondays dancer Bez whilst legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam put on a gig at the camp.

However at the end of the month the government’s consultation on extending the area of the UK available for fracking came to an end. Two thirds of the country was now at risk, so whether you lived in a National Park or a city, a leafy shire or an ex-industrial city, the odds were you could see a fracking rig in your back yard. Maybe not soon, but sometime. The fight was very much still on.


Cold morning on the Moss
What should have been an “eight to twelve week” drill by Igas’s test drilling finally came to an end at  the start of April. According to commentators on the London Stock Exchange web page, deep sea wells of the Falkland Islands had been completed faster. One poster said “Absolutely no way Barton Moss should have taken (is taking) so long to drill. And the delay (about 300%) is down to so-called ‘lawful protest’. And such delay is very expensive.” Maybe because of this their share price dropped 25%, knocking £80 million off the value of the company.

Igas now intended to spend the next six months looking at their data before deciding whether to apply for a license to come back and frack. Direct action certainly appeared to be working, spooking the investors and cutting through the spin to show people the truth about the industry. But in a democracy direct action can’t succeed on its own.
Salford Council refuses to debate
The Protection Camp only survived the winter thanks to support from the local community, and that community had also been organising its own opposition. Irlam and Cadishead Frack Free went out door-knocking and managed to collect a very impressive 3000 names for their petition to Salford Council asking them to debate fracking.

This was handed in at the end of February and by their own rules the council now had to debate the issue. On 8th April discussing the petition was on the agenda for Salford Cabinet. Come the day there were more campaigners than there were places in the public gallery. Ali Abbas from Manchester Friends of the Earth addressed the executives of Salford Council and then…..nothing. Despite the largest rally against fracking in the UK, over 200 arrests and the petition, Salford Council still refused to debate on the issue.


Sunset on Barton Moss camp
The campaign finally came to an end with a party under the stars on Saturday 12th April. 

For the Protectors who had survived the winter and the GMP, it was time to reflect. Then the job of cleaning up the site and moving people and equipment elsewhere then began. New camps had sprung up at Upton near Chester and at Daneshill in Nottinghamshire and more were planned. Anti-fracking groups are now springing up across the country like spring flowers, taking root in places that might not to be fracked for years.

Just like when Swampy and co. opposed the government’s road building program in the 1990s, there will soon be a network of camps across the country with a travelling army of campaigners opposing the drillers wherever they appear. At Upton they are even building tree houses.

We haven’t won. Fracking is still coming, but it is coming slowly.

Whilst there may be an argument for gas as a window fuel to replace coal whilst we develop low carbon alternatives, it all falls down when you realise that no fracked gas has come out of the ground yet, and it might be ten years before it does in any usable quantities. And that won’t do.

If we want to prevent dangerous Climate Change we need alternatives now. We need as much wind and wave and solar as we can build, we need more public transport and fewer planes, we need to save energy, use our energy smarter and make more of it ourselves. Maybe carbon capture and storage will work, maybe there is a role for nuclear, but whatever, we need this stuff now. The climate cannot wait for us to ride out twenty years of fracking boom and bust first.

Remember, once you frack you can’t go back.

To find out how to join the resistance go to:

To follow the campaign in Manchester go to:

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