Feature: Kirby Misperton protests and the fracking frontline

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You can’t escape the f-word in Kirby Misperton.

Villagers in the picture postcard countryside of North Yorkshire have unwittingly been pitched on to the frontline in the national battle over fracking.

Anti-fracking protester Eddie Thornton at the camp near Kirby Misperton. (Tony Johnson).

Anti-fracking protester Eddie Thornton at the camp near Kirby Misperton. (Tony Johnson).

With the establishment of an anti-fracking protest camp on the outskirts of the village just before Christmas and news crews turning up en masse, even many of those opposed to the controversial shale gas extraction process due to take place near their homes in the idyllic rural setting are tired of hearing about it.

Things have got so bad that one local pub outside the village has even banned fracking as a conversation topic because of the arguments it is causing among regulars.

“We just want to live our quiet little lives as we were before,” says villager Heidi Ridgewell.

“We are stuck completely in the middle. It feels like we are caught up in some kind of random Channel Four documentary.”

Campaigners claim they get around 100 visitors a day offering support.

Campaigners claim they get around 100 visitors a day offering support.

The battle moved into a new phase just before Christmas after the High Court rejected a legal move to stop plans for test fracking at a well to the south-west of the village.

That same day, anti-fracking activists set up a camp on private farmland on the outskirts of the village without the permission of the landowner.

They aim to remain on the site until the arrival of lorries from fracking firm Third Energy - when they intend to carry out ‘go slow walks’ in front of the vehicles to delay the process and cost the company money.

Heidi, who works in a pub, says while she opposes fracking, she doesn’t support the protection camp.

5 January 2017 .......   Anti-fracking protesters at their camp near Kirby Misperton set up in attempt to stop fracking in North Yorkshire. Around ten people have been living on the site over Christmas and New Years and campaigners claim they are receiving around 100 visitors a day who are expressing their support.  Picture Tony Johnson

5 January 2017 ....... Anti-fracking protesters at their camp near Kirby Misperton set up in attempt to stop fracking in North Yorkshire. Around ten people have been living on the site over Christmas and New Years and campaigners claim they are receiving around 100 visitors a day who are expressing their support. Picture Tony Johnson

She believes it’s unfair they are squatting in a privately-owned field and that removing them could be a costly and time-consuming process.

“It is not on. I don’t see how that camp is going to stop Third Energy. I don’t think this is the way to do it. We don’t want fracking and I don’t know anybody that does really want it. I don’t know what the answer is but the camp was not started with the villagers’ knowledge.”

Teacher Jan Ainley also has concerns.

“We are all against fracking. But the people who are down there are nothing to do with us,” she says.

“If the courts can’t do anything, then trying to make the lorries go slow won’t work. One of the local pubs has banned people from talking about fracking because of all the arguments it starts with the customers.”

While some may want the issue to disappear, the current situation may actually prove to be the relative calm before the storm.

Activists hope hundreds of campaigners will turn out later this year for ‘slow walking’ protests to delay lorries reaching the test frack site.

But those braving freezing winter temperatures to live and sleep at the camp believe they are making a vital stand to protect the environment for generations to come.

The campaigners have taken over a corner of the field, with anti-fracking placards dotted around among the tents and caravans on the site.

A makeshift television studio is being built to broadcast on YouTube, while tents are packed with donated supplies to cook on an outdoor fire.

Articles in the national media have claimed there are fears the camp could be taken over by ‘anarchists and extremists’ after being organised by people from outside the local area.

This has led camp organisers to publish ‘five pledges’ to villagers - including a commitment that they ‘do not intend to cause any criminal damage in any direct action’.

Camp members have also said they are willing to put a bond down to pay back the landowner if they do not leave the field in a satisfactory state.

Eddie Thornton, from nearby Pickering, is one of the main organisers at the camp.

The 33-year-old had been working in a Buddhist monastery in France as a videographer before coming back to Yorkshire.

He accepts that people from outside the local area had been involved in establishing the camp but urged worried villagers to visit the site and meet those staying there.

Eddie feels activists had no other option but to set up the camp in a last-ditch attempt to stop the fracking process.

He fears a ‘massive rollout of wells for fracking across the whole of Ryedale and the whole of northern England’ should this site be allowed to go ahead.

“This field was chosen was because it is on the approach road where the lorries are going to come,” he says.

The plan by Third Energy to frack for shale gas using an existing two-mile deep well in Kirby Misperton was approved in May by North Yorkshire County Council.

Villagers tried to block the decision in the High Court but the application was dismissed just before Christmas.

The Kirby Misperton application was the first to be approved in the UK since 2011, when tests on the Fylde coast in Lancashire were found to have been the probable cause of minor earthquakes in the area.

The Government has indicated it believes ‘shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs’.

Third Energy has said it respects the right to lawful and peaceful protest, with a spokesman adding: “We trust that those who object to our plans will also respect our rights to go about our business lawfully and peacefully.”

Ian R Crane, a former oil and gas worker who now runs the Fracking Awareness Campaign, helped to establish the camp.

Ian, who has been involved with similar camps in the past, says his visits to fracking fields in Australia had convinced him of the need to stop the process taking hold in the UK.

“This is being pushed by the Government and the companies against the will of the people. In parts of Australia, you can drive your car all day and every 750m there is a well site. That is all in the space of ten years. That started with just one well. That is the situation we are now facing in this country.”

Also on the camp were husband and wife Kim and John Atkinson from Scarborough.

Kim, who works in PR, said: “We will never be good enough for the people we are fighting against. If we are locals, we are ‘nimbys’, if we are from outside the area, we are bussed in.”

Property developer Philip Tate, who stood as an independent candidate at the last general election on an anti-fracking stance, also visited to offer his support.

“If all you were talking about was three or four wells, I wouldn’t be here. But that won’t make a difference to our energy mix. The only way is by drilling thousands of these wells.

“There are more benign ways of extracting gas than fracking the whole of northern England. They are very keen to write this camp off as just a few eco-cranks. I’m the very opposite of an eco-crank.”

Camp member Geoff Bostock, a 66-year-old former forklift truck technician from Bradford, says he won’t cut his beard until fracking has been prevented in the area, though he admits “it might get a bit longer”.

Police ensure peaceful protests

Police have said they are ‘not taking sides’ regarding the anti-fracking camp.

Inspector Simon Jolly from North Yorkshire Police said the police have a duty to allow peaceful protests to take place.

The local neighbourhood policing team has been in talks with the protesters to ‘establish their intentions’ following the camp being set up before Christmas and the force is working with Ryedale District Council and North Yorkshire County Council on the issue.

Inspector Jolly said: “North Yorkshire Police will continue to liaise with the Kirby Misperton Protection Camp like any other community in North Yorkshire, using a neighbourhood policing approach.

“The police have a duty to facilitate peaceful protest, which is balanced with the rights of residents and businesses to go about their daily life in Kirby Misperton with any possible disruption kept to minimum.

“To be clear, the police are not taking sides regarding this issue. Our presence is intended to provide reassurance and ensure the safety of everyone involved, including those at the camp.”