Protestors in Balcombe forced shale gas company Cuadrilla to temporarily halt work, but a longer struggle remains likely
By Sophie Yeo
It was an early morning for the protesters in the village of Balcombe yesterday.
Some had camped overnight, while others arrived at 7am, without placards and practically in their pajamas.
They were there make sure that that were ready for when the trucks arrived, carrying the drills that are scheduled to start boring into the West Sussex landscape on Saturday.
This is the first stage of a process that could eventually lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on a site just to the south of Balcombe.
The protest, or the Great Gas Gala as the activists have dubbed it, started just any gala in a sleepy, home counties village might begin – with a cup of tea.
Marina Pepper, a prominent activist and Liberal Democrat politician, was one of the first to arrive. She told RTCC, “We had come to make tea for the day, so we were just unpacking the stuff, and we were trying to get the fire on, when this big truck came up.
“People stood in front of it, and they were standing with their arms by their sides looking terrified. It was amazing.
“They stood there, and then a gentlemen from Cuadrilla very politely, as is our way here in Britain, said, ‘Would you kindly move out of the way?’ and they very politely said, ‘No, I don’t think we will.’”
The protesters, about ten in all, and with an equal number of journalists standing by, stood in front of the gate that led to the privately owned site, where part of the rig has already been constructed.
The Cuadrilla trucks could not make their way past the activists, and, after its brake lines were cut, could not move at all.
“There was a bit of confusion, but apparently the air breaks got cut on the lorry, so the lorry wasn’t going anywhere,” said Pepper. “What then happened was beautiful. The numbers grew, placards came out, tea was served, and flapjacks went round.”
It is not clear who cut the brake lines, with protesters diversely alleging theories that it was either a mysterious hero or a sneaky driver trying to pin blame on the activists.
The initial act of criminal damage meant that there was a visible police presence throughout the day.
There were no arrests, partly due to the large number of children on the site, and partly due to some initial confusion over whether the road, which had been shut off to allow the trucks onto the site, counted as a highway.
The question arose of whether the protesters could be arrested under the Highways Act for willful obstruction of a highway, since the road wasn’t open, and therefore they were not technically obstructing it.
Another protester, Natalie Hynde, daughter of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Ray Davies of The Kinks, said that the atmosphere meant that it would have made it difficult for the police to arrest anyone.
She told RTCC, “I don’t think they’re going to arrest anyone, because there are women and children. There’s a very warm fluffy atmosphere, and we are not actually doing anything perceived as spiky, and I think it will remain that way.”
But that does not mean that she is not willing to get arrested. The drilling rig that Cuadrilla plan to erect is comparatively small compared to the massive operations taking place across America, but for many it is a strategic moment.
Balcombe symbolises the large fracking battle that is just beginning to take place across the country, with British Chancellor George Osborne supporting a “dash for gas” on one hand, while environmentalists and concerned citizens fight against the controversial shale extraction technique on the other.
Simon Carey-Morgan, another protester, told RTCC, “Stopping fracking nationally is going to be really difficult, but if we can stop it in one place, then that’s a really good start, and I think we stand the best chance of stopping it here, because the village is so behind stopping it. Think globally, act locally, you know?”
While they are determined that the protest should be peaceful throughout, it is a cause for which many of the protesters at the Great Gas Gala say they are willing to face up to the police.
Hynde said, “I’m willing to get arrested. I think it’s part of the process at this point.
“People aren’t that scared of being arrested for highway obstruction, because we believe in what we’re doing. We’re so committed to this, we don’t mind if there’s something on a CRB.
“They are going to have to think of new ways to put us off because that isn’t working. We’re not afraid of that.”
Others are concerned that the action at Balcombe might not be enough, and that people won’t mobilise until it is too late.
Tom Cowan, who came from Brighton to protest, told RTCC, “There’s going to be thousands of these drills rolled out across the country. This is just one, and my fear is that there’s a lot of apathy, and it’s going to take millions of people waking up to stop it.
“People won’t really get involved until something tragic happens and a whole community loses access to their water because it’s polluted, or animals start getting sick on farmland and start dying or having strange mutations because of what they’re putting into the earth.
“It’s beautiful countryside, and I think the more time you spend here the more precious you realise it is. It’s a very special spot, and it certainly doesn’t need to be injected with a toxic mix of chemicals and fracked.”
The day ended with success for the protesters, with Cuadrilla leaving the site mid afternoon. But the battle continues, with the company saying that they now intend to start drilling on Monday.
These two days of delay will not mean much unless the protests spread from sleepy Balcombe across the whole country, as those at the Great Gas Gala hope they will. Tea and flapjacks optional.