Road closures, celebration and deep suspicion - three hours at fracking protest site
Few issues have divided opinion like the ongoing protests at Preston New Road, where energy firm Cuadrilla is currently constructing a fracking well.
In almost daily correspondence to The Gazette, both sides have made their case.Those battling to halt construction claim police have been heavy-handed and are working not to ensure the safety of all those at the site, but to facilitate Cuadrilla in its work.Those who support fracking say the protesters are causing unnecessary problems for people just trying to get on with their daily lives by blocking the road and therefore, causing it to be closed.Every road closure, every incident is viewed in a different way depending on what side of the argument they are on. And those views are spread widely, without recourse, on social media.So, how to get to the truth? The Gazette went incognito at Preston New Road on Tuesday, to independently observe events as they unfolded.
Under cloudless skies battle lines have been drawn.On one side stand a line of uniformed police officers, standing together, ranks closed, clad in high visibility yellow.It isn’t just Lancashire’s officers on duty. A team of officers from Merseyside wait at the roadside some 50 yards away.One of two vans blocking the Cuadrilla gates belongs to officers from Cumbria.Just yards away, across the no-man’s land of a busy A-road, the anti-fracking protesters – self-styled protectors – have made their camp.A small line of tents, crushed up against the hedge-line, is home to a semi-permanent core of campaigners. Others come and go, either from a nearby camp or their homes in neighbouring towns and villages.At first sight the atmosphere seems peaceful.At one end of the makeshift camp a man is strumming a guitar. Elsewhere people are playing boardgames – I’m invited to join in as I pass.People are cleaning their teeth, chatting, going about their usual morning routine.But digging a little deeper the lack of trust from both sides becomes clear.My arrival at the scene has not gone unnoticed. Police monitoring CCTV cameras have picked up a ‘new face’ and want to know who I am and what I’m doing. I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt...not my normal gear on a Tuesday morning.Two officers, on liaison duty, approach. I’m only too happy to chat but it sparks a reaction from someone in the protest camp, who jump to try to prevent me from being ‘harassed’.It’s a stark reminder of the rift between the ‘protectors’ and the police, one which becomes evident as the morning progresses.It’s the camp residents who make the first move.The trickle of arrivals changing from a drip to a steady stream is a clue things are likely to change.A speaker is wheeled across the road onto a traffic island and the leaders of the protest make their move, no-mans land becoming occupied territory.The police stand their ground as Cuadrilla’s private security watch on from behind the fences.The traffic island now an improptu stage, speakers are invited to address the crowd, the message not just anti-fracking but anti-fossil fuel, the protest clearly becoming, to some at least, about far more than one small corner of Lancashire.A delivery to the site causes something of a stir, the police lines parting, vans moved inches to allow the skip lorry access.A ripple of boos breaks out among the protesters, hardly the radical reaction expected, before they return to the business of oration.And then chaos descends.The campaigners decide they are going to stage a ‘die-in’, in solidarity with villagers in Southern Italy who live on the route of a planned gas pipeline. Officers move to halt traffic as the crowd lie down in the road, a high-visibility yellow ring put in place around the group, with, it seems almost one officer to every campaigner.The protest seems peaceful enough, until, without warning, wild celebrations begin.Some protesters are dancing, the tone celebratory.“Shut it down, shut it down,” they sing.“They’ve only gone and locked on,” another shouts.“Their hands just slipped into the pipes, it’s an accident,” another says, barely stifling sarcasm and laughter.It is clear they are enjoying a moment of triumph.“We dropped it, right under their noses,” another shouts, dancing to loud music being played from the speaker in the middle of the road.The immediate impression is that this, to the protesters, is a game – they’ve scored a victory over the authorities, they’ve blocked a main road.The tone has changed, with police moving vehicles into place to shield the scene, a simmering stand-off threatens to become a full blown skirmish, played out between hedgerows under bright summer sun.It quickly becomes clear the police strategy is to close the whole road and to create a barrier either side of the group.While some officers go to work turning around cars – long queues are already forming – others form a physical barrier. Anyone who leaves the protest area will not be allowed in.Within the cauldron created by the cordon, there remains something of a party atmosphere.Some people, however, are getting carried away, taunting police, shouting repeatedly to senior officers.“Police farce, that’s what this is,” shouts one woman.“Make a decision, Maam,”Those within the cordon quickly become aware that police, rather than keeping the clear lane open, have decided to shut the whole road.The reason for the strategy is not clear.There would be, without doubt, room to get one lane of traffic through.And campaigners make their opinions clear.“Open the road,” they shout. fearing the police are as much concerned with turning local hearts and minds against the campaigners as they are for their safety.A scuffle almost breaks out when one of the legal observers walks beyond the police lines.Constables, acting on orders, refuse to allow her to cross.The same faces who rushed to challenge officers on my behalf are there again, making their thoughts known.Senior officers quickly step in to resolve the situation while, attempting to take advantage of the distraction, a small number of other campaigners, try to sneak past the police lines.All the time music is playing, photos are being taken and campaigners film and live stream the scenes.The stand-off lasts more than half an hour while, quietly, members of the police team work to try to free the locked-on foursome.A change of police strategy is signalled by the movement of vans (cue more remarks relating to driving skills of those behind the wheel).Police close in around the campaign group, finally re-opening the road.Behind the temporary wall created by the line of vehicles work goes on to end the lock-on.But the larger crowd, realising their moment is over, head back to the pavement as the traffic, once again, begins to flow...