Business representatives have admitted concern after anti-fracking campaigners expressed confidence that a week of direct action against companies supplying Cuadrilla could help block the controversial industry in Lancashire.
National social and climate justice group Reclaim the Power has joined forces with local campaigners in direct action against businesses supplying the shale gas exploration company.
Campaigners claim seven businesses, including three cement companies, have already bowed to pressure and agreed to stop supplying Cuadrilla’s fracking site on Preston New Road.
Activist James Tomson said: “The local community in Lancashire has successfully resisted this for six years – since the first drill site in Blackpool caused earthquakes – and we’re confident that we can continue to stop this industry.”
Moores Readymix cut off its supply of cement to Preston New Road earlier this month. Armstrong Aggregates, another among the seven companies claimed to have ceased supplying the site, declined to comment.
Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern that more businesses would pull out.
“Our fear is if the protests go on and on and escalate it may have the potential of putting local suppliers off supplying the industry,” she told Big Issue North.
“We have worked with Cuadrilla for almost three years to convince them to use the local supply chain rather than going elsewhere. There’s plenty of industry elsewhere that can supply the shale gas industry, there’s a lot of specialism elsewhere, and what we’ve tried to do is ensure that if we produce in Lancashire, we benefit in Lancashire.”
Many Lancashire residents oppose fracking and Lancashire County Council (LCC) voted against Cuadrilla’s bid to explore the area, only to be overturned by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid in October following an appeal by the company. There are currently two complaints under judicial review from residents who say the decision was undemocratic.
Murphy disagrees. “The democratic process has been enacted because at the end of the day they [Cuadrilla] had the right to appeal against the LCC decision – that is our democratic process and the appeal took place.
“Of course the protesters are exercising their democratic rights by bringing forward a judicial review. We’re working in a democratic structure and I think all parties are working within that, so it isn’t a case of being undemocratic – this is the process of planning and all that’s happening there is it’s being enacted.”
Targets for the Break the Chain direct action this week included Tarmac and Aggregate Industries in Carnforth, currently supplying the Preston New Road fracking site near Blackpool. Lorry access to the company’s quarry was suspended for 11 hours by the appearance of two protesters on swings rigged onto height restriction bars at two key access points (pictured).
Protester Chris Thompson said: “We’re asking Aggregate Industries to do the decent thing. Follow the example of other companies in the area. Step away from fracking your neighbours and we’ll gladly come down.”
Protests continued throughout the week, targeting Yorkshire Water, the Preston New Road site itself, Eddie Stobart haulage firm and multinational utility company Centrica – where activists held a party for boss Iain Conn to celebrate his recent £1.4 million bonus – which holds around a quarter of fracking licences.
On Friday Reclaim the Power activists from Lancashire targeted AE Yates in Bolton, Cuadrilla’s primary contractor for Preston New Road. Protesters arrived at 5.30am and two women fixed themselves in place, using a reinforced arm tube, at the entrance to the company’s depot.
Jill Mason said she was taking action to send a message to businesses in the fracking supply chain. “If your company is supporting an industry that causes catastrophic climate change, pollutes air, land and water, and overrides local democracy – expect disruption,” she said
Murphy believes it is a step too far. “We’ve always advocated peaceful protest – it’s part of our democracy – but they have gone over the line on occasion with the supply chain and that is recognised by the amount of arrests that have taken place so far.”
Local pro-fracking group Backing Fracking agree that local businesses should not suffer. A spokesperson said: “We think it’s a desperate shame that protesters are targeting companies and their employees that are just trying to earn a living, which isn’t easy in this day and age. Whatever you think about fracking, that’s surely just not fair.”
The spokesperson added that the wider impact of protests are of greatest concern. “It’s very clear that we’re going to continue using lots of gas every year for many decades. That being the case, we think it’s better to extract and use our own rather than import so much.
“Gas produced closer to the point of use will have lower distribution costs, which should help to contain energy prices and ensure they stay affordable. But it will also create better jobs on better pay and with better prospects in parts of the country that could really benefit, like Preston and Blackpool here in Lancashire.”
Two women were arrested at the AE Yates site on Friday. There are around 50-60 officers regularly policing the protests and Lancashire Constabulary said 59 people were arrested at the Preston New Road site between 27 January and 17 March, with 47 of those being charged.
The police operation is estimated to be costing around £14,000 a day. Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw has called on the government to fund the escalating costs of the policing operation because the council had voted against fracking.
Activists argue the police presence is disproportionate and feel their rights to peaceful protest are being removed with increasingly forceful action, forcing them to resort to direct action. Two local councillors were injured during police kettling at Preston New Road.
But Murphy, a former military police officer, has called for a firmer line from police with protesters. In a jointly signed letter to MPs last week, the chamber and other business representatives, as well as the GMB trade union, said businesses had endure “weeks of harassment and intimidation”.
Murphy said: “Those that are clearly breaking the law should go to justice. Justice should prevail. I think that climbing on top of trucks, preventing businesses from getting in and out of their premises, should be dealt with.”
She added: “I think [the police] have been extremely fair – they do have to facilitate peaceful protest, and I think they’ve done that exceptionally well, but equally they need to protect the rights of businesses that want to go about their daily jobs – creating employment, creating growth. They shouldn’t be prohibited from doing that.”
Murphy claimed there are up to 1,300 businesses with a potential business interest in the Preston New Road site – and over 800 of them are in Lancashire. She said they include everything from cleaners to technical specialists.
“We don’t have any figures but, for example, the Ernst & Young report forecasts a national industry [could create] approximately 64,000 new jobs, which equates to approximately £33 billion, which is quite significant.
“How that’s going to pan out in Lancashire depends on what’s actually going to happen. It is unknown at the moment – this is why they are in exploratory stages. They know shale is underground. They don’t know the commercial viability of extracting that yet. But potentially, because it’s happening first in Lancashire, if everything goes according to plan, it’s first mover advantage. Lancashire will get a huge share of that potential pot.”
At the AE Yates site protester Rachel Weston described the fracking industry as “making money for a minority and it will be misery for the many”.
Reclaim the Power has so far targeted major suppliers in the Break the Chain protests. It will not reveal if those tactics will continue into the second week of its fortnight-long action, or if smaller local businesses like those that have already pulled out will be targeted.
Asked how companies should respond to protests Murphy said: “These companies have to make a commercial decision because they’re not only supplying the shale gas industry – they’re supplying many more customers. So if they’re prevented from getting outside of their premises, it isn’t just the Preston New Road site that suffers but their existing client base.”
Tomson said: “The targets are picked by people in the local area so it’s up to them to decide who’s best. It’s companies that we think we can affect. We’re confident we can have an impact. These two weeks show local opposition to the industry. We’re calling on these companies to break their ties and we do think it will have an effect.”