Anti-fracking campaigners challenge eviction attempt in court
Protesters camping by a drill site in Barton Moss argue their human rights will be violated if they are forced to leave
Anti-fracking protesters who have been camping by a drill site in Greater Manchester since late October have appeared in court to challenge attempts to evict them.
Peel Investments (North) Ltd – which owns much of the prime real estate in the north-west of England, including the BBC's Media City in Salford and the Manchester ship canal – wants demonstrators to leave its land at Barton Moss by the M62 in Irlam, Salford. The energy firm iGas has been carrying out exploratory drilling at the site since before Christmas in spite of near daily attempts by protesters to slow down or block access to the area.
Two self-described "protectors" from the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp (BMCPC) have launched a legal challenge to the eviction notice issued by a court last month, arguing their human rights will be violated if they are forced to leave.
Ian R Crane, a former oilfield executive who now devotes his life to warning the public about the dangers of extreme energy extraction, appeared at Manchester's Civil Justice Centre on Thursday, alongside his co-defendant Martin Burke, a former infantry officer turned full-time Green party activist.
In papers submitted to the court, the pair argue that eviction would contravene articles 8, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a home (Crane lives in a caravan on the site and claims he will be homeless if the camp is cleared), and the right to freedom of expression and assembly. They also cite the common law right to exercise a pedestrian right of way along Barton Moss Lane, a private road to the iGas site owned by Peel.
Most days the protesters walk slowly in front of iGas lorries to frustrate deliveries, occasionally lying in the road or carrying out other disruptive stunts. On one occasion a coach was parked to block the lane; another time a blade from a wind turbine was abandoned by the site entrance. Both Crane and Burke deny responsibility for either action and insist they only engage in peaceful protest aiming to educate Britons about the potential hazards associated with fracking.
But lawyers for Peel claim the protesters do not need to occupy their land in order to air their opposition to fracking. Katharine Holland, QC, for Peel, suggested they make their point instead via the media, pointing out that BMCPC has received coverage in the Guardian, Mirror, BBC and beyond.
Peel, along with its sister company Manchester Ship Canal Developments Ltd, argue in court papers that conditions on the camp are dangerous and unhygienic and that local people are fed up of the protesters.
In a witness statement one Peel executive argued the firm had showed "considerable patience" by tolerating the camp for so long, but said the group were now disturbing not only iGas but neighbouring homeowners and businesses, some of whom felt "like prisoners in their own homes".
He submitted as evidence a Facebook posting from a woman who runs a nearby livery and stables who said that while she had initially brought duvets down to the camp to keep the protesters warm, she was upset that they had blocked the road so that she couldn't pass with a young foal.
Another local businessman from steel manufacturers Plasmet was said to have spent £4,000 providing alternative access to his premises.
In his witness statement, Crane said he doesn't consider himself an "activist", but was merely asserting his right to peaceful protest.
He said he had worked for the global oil firm Schlumberger as a senior executive between 1979 and 1998 but left "after becoming increasingly concerned about the risks associated with a new extraction technology known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), an aggressive process designed to extract gas from tight geology."
In court documents he accused iGas of "misleading" the local community in Salford by telling them the exploratory well at the Barton Moss site is intended to establish the viability of exploring coal bed methane from the coal measures, "when the real target is 5,500ft thick shale gas deposit beneath the coal measures".
Crane said he would leave the site as soon as iGas stopped drilling, and claimed the "shrubland" would look better on departure than it did when the protesters arrived: a point disputed by Peel, who submitted photos of the windswept camp to the judge, Mark Pelling, QC.
During the hearing on Thursday the judge questioned whether the camp was actually on land which Peel had rented out to a local farmer. If this was the case, only the tenant - ie the farmer - would be able to apply for an eviction order, he said.
The case continues.