Activists will challenge permission granted to Cuadrilla for test fracking sites near Blackpool as pressure mounts over the cost of policing the protests
The government will go to court this week to defend test drilling at a fracking site in Lancashire as it comes under pressure to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to cover the cost of policing anti-fracking protests.
The high court in Manchester will hear two cases on Wednesday that pit Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, against protesters who oppose the permission granted to fracking companies for test sites near Blackpool.
In October, Javid overturned Lancashire county council’s rejection of plans for a fracking site at Preston New Road near Little Plumpton, giving the green light to the energy firm Cuadrilla. He decided the council was wrong to refuse planning consent on the basis of visual impact on the landscape and noise concerns at the site, which is on a busy 50mph road connecting Fylde villages with Blackpool.
The legal challenges have been issued by a group of residents called the Preston New Road Action Group and Gayzer Frackman, a professional clown from Lytham St Annes who changed his name by deed poll from Geza Tarjanyi. They argue that the government’s decision to overrule the council was unlawful because it failed to properly apply relevant planning laws and policy.
Javid also faces a legal challenge to his decision to reopen the public inquiry on Cuadrilla’s other proposed site at nearby Roseacre Wood.
Cuadrilla began preparing the Preston New Road site in early January and has faced round-the-clock protests ever since. About 60 officers from Lancashire police are stationed at the site most days trying to strike the balance between facilitating peaceful protest and allowing Cuadrilla to continue its legal business activities – currently a regular flow of lorry deliveries, which are regularly stopped by demonstrators lying in the road.
The number of police officers needed will no doubt increase as Cuadrilla begins drilling in the next quarter, according to the local police and crime commissioner, Clive Grunshaw.
He said the government should foot the bill as it was Javid who approved the site, not Lancashire county council or the police. “It is hard to say how much it has cost, but the bill already goes into the hundreds of thousands of pounds and will go into the millions,” he said on Sunday, noting that Lancashire constabulary had received a 25% cut in government funding since 2010.
“It is not fair or just that these costs should be borne by the people of Lancashire. This was a decision taken by Javid’s department, not Lancashire county council, and so I really believe that the government should fund the policing.”
Grunshaw said he was “agnostic” about fracking, but that he was concerned about the pressure and cost of policing the site. “The strain on officers is already immense. These officers are going on shift to be abused and being portrayed as the enemy when they really are not. These are Lancashire officers who live and work in the local community and who are at the site instead of dealing with domestic violence or antisocial behaviour and keeping people safe,” he said.
Protesters have made complaints about “police brutality” but Grunshaw said he had yet to see evidence of any. He said local activists had built up a good relationship with the police over recent years and blamed protesters from outside the area coming in and “degrading that trust”.
If the protesters lose their judicial review this week Cuadrilla will step up activity on the site, meaning more protesters and more demands on police, he said: “This is just the tip of the iceberg at the moment.”
On Sunday residents from Kirby Misperton in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, where a fracking licence was granted last year in similarly controversial circumstances, finished a 120-mile walk to the Preston New Road site.
Meanwhile, planning officers in Nottinghamshire will on Monday publish their recommendations on what could be the county’s second shale gas well. The planning application, submitted in May last year by the IGas subsidiary Dart Energy, is for one vertical exploratory well and three groups of groundwater monitoring boreholes. It does not include fracking.
In November 2016, the county council approved plans by IGas for two exploration wells at Springs Road near the village of Misson.
Fracking is an extreme form of energy extraction that involves drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed into the rock to release the gas inside. Opponents argue that it causes water pollution and even earthquakes: in 2011, Cuadrilla suspended test fracking operations near Blackpool after two earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 magnitude hit the area.
Proponents of fracking argue that beneath Lancashire and Yorkshire, in the Bowland shale, lies one of the richest shale gas resources ever discovered. Just 10% of it would be enough to provide 50 years’ worth of British needs, according to Lord Ridley, a pro-fracking peer who owns his own coal mine.