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A fracking scandal: police and energy firms cosy on up

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RHL Images under a Creative Commons Licence

Anti-fracking activists in Greater Manchester and West Sussex have been left concerned, but not surprised, by the results of a long-running Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) investigation into a series of secretive agreements signed between their local police forces and private companies exploring the viability of fracking in their areas.

These ‘Memorandums of Understanding’, uncovered through the persistent use of freedom of information (FoI) requests, appear to set out a working relationship between police covering the Barton Moss (Salford) and Balcombe (West Sussex) fracking test sites and the commercial interests engaged in the testing.

Kevin Blowe, NetPol’s co-ordinator, says that, on the basis of the answers to FoIs they’ve sent, other police forces – such as Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Humberside – that also have fracking exploration in their areas, have not entered into Memorandums with fracking companies. But the Sussex and Greater Manchester memorandums have raised alarm among activists and others in communities potentially affected by fracking. They say that the police are privileging corporate interests over the interests of the people they serve.

The Sussex memorandum – drawn up in early 2013 – is an eight-page document setting out the responsibilities of different public agencies, the landowner and the Caudrilla fracking company in the event of protests. The document states that while it ‘does not constitute a legally binding agreement between signatories’, it does ‘establish an agreed position as to the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the above activity, and to give clarity to all parties involved with the operation’.

The memorandum states that it is ‘agreed and accepted that police may have to enter the oil exploration site’ and sets out how Caudrilla will ‘lead on all media communications... in liaison with the Sussex Police Corporate Communications and Public Engagement department’. The document also contains provisions for the sharing of information between public agencies and the fracking interests, while also clearly reminding all parties of the legal and health and safety rights enjoyed by potential protesters on private land.

The document relating to operations at Barton Moss makes similar provisions, with Greater Manchester Police thanking ‘colleagues in Sussex’ for their assistance. It is also significantly longer and goes into substantially more detail. The engaged parties agree regular joint meetings and information-sharing at the police’s senior ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ command levels. They also agree to ‘clear lines of communications for shared public relations matters including press releases and branding’. The memorandum explicitly allows officers with video-recording equipment on to fracking exploration land and states that a ‘CCTV feed’ will be provided direct to ‘Silver control room’.

Simon Pook of Robert Lizar Solicitors who has been acting for protesters arrested at Barton Moss, has expressed his concerns about the memorandum: ‘My reading of it is that it gives a wide sway of influence over policing to private interests, over and above those of concerned people. The weight on the scales appears to be entirely on the side of private interests, which raises questions about people’s right to protest. At the very least, campaigners should have the same level of access to the police.’

His concerns are echoed by Stephen Kingston, who edits independent local newspaper the Salford Star. ‘From our point of view, we thought it was disgraceful... I think the residents and protesters probably guessed IGas [Energy plc] and the Greater Manchester Police were liaising [with corporate interests] while ignoring its own citizens. That just says it all about the current state of democracy and unaccountability.’

In Sussex, Balcombe resident and anti-fracking campaigner Kathryn McWhirter says that recent events have changed her feelings towards the police. ‘I used to be quite deferential towards them, but not now. It’s outrageous and undemocratic. It has definitely politicized me and an awful lot of others, leading us to question a lot of things.’

She also says that a Gold or Silver level officer had held a meeting with a (minority) anti-protester group within her village – not at all with activists. ‘[When] the majority of the village opposed to Cuadrilla’s activities then asked for a meeting, to give balance [no meeting was held].’

In response to this, Sussex Police say: ‘[we] try where ever possible to enter into Memorandums of Understanding with the companies, strategic partners and anyone directly connected with a gas/oil exploration site to try and reduce confusion. [We also aim to create] Memorandum[s] with those who wish to exercise their rights to peacefully protest... to try and reduce any conflict.... [However,] demonstrators may in fact be a collective of individuals all pursuing separate agendas and not under any direction. This will mean this Memorandum cannot be agreed by any one demonstrator on behalf of any other demonstrator. However, we are more than willing to enter into Memorandum with any legitimate demonstrator group...’

They also state that ‘[we] did not work with Cuadrilla on communications matters. We did ask to be copied in on press releases that the company issued, but this did not always happen.’

For their part, Greater Manchester Police state: ‘Any multi-agency operation, such as this, requires us to work together with all stakeholders... Understanding what information other agencies are planning allows us to better understand the full picture. The protest group were approached on numerous occasions to try and gain some level of understanding between all of the groups involved. Police Liaison Officers were also at the protest site on a daily basis trying to speak to and work with the protesters. However... they would not provide a representative so therefore any effective and worthwhile liaison was extremely limited.’

Meanwhile in Sussex, Kathryn McWhirter, like many in Balcombe and across the anti-fracking movement, is considering the bigger picture. Don’t just look at it in terms of local bodies, she says, ‘look at Parliament, look at the cosy relationships across the whole system.’  

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