'Suffragettes' confront Theresa May over fracking of local democracy

The campaign against fracking began with concerns about the local environment, and the impact on communities. It then took in the global issues of climate change and energy. Now local people are growing ever more concerned about democracy and state power, argues NATALIE BENNETT

When history is written, there’s a good chance the fight against fracking will be seen as an important part of the awakening to determination for parliament to reflect the will of the people.

Rotherham Borough Council has for the second time turned down an application from the shale oil hopeful INEOS, to drill at Woodsetts on planning grounds.

Yet when I joined anti-fracking protectors at the proposed Tinker Lane, near Retford, and Misson, near Doncaster, sites on Monday, there was little celebration.

For we’ve long since learned that while Lancashire said no to fracking, as did Rotherham and Derbyshire, neither the fracking companies, nor the government in far-off Westminster is likely to take no for an answer.

Six-year battle

“Oh, INEOS will appeal,” the locals said, and history shows they are likely right.

There was more cheer, however, in events at Tinker Lane. I’d been asked to return there because credible reports suggested that a drilling rig might be arriving on Monday.

It’s the subject of an injunction, one of the many attacks we’re seeing on democracy and right to protest around the country, both by frackers and others (hello Sheffield’s Labour City Council).

But that hasn’t deterred people coming out to protest and show their opposition to the rig, and on an autumnal weekday, about 35 people came out prepared to demonstrate their opposition.

No rig appeared – and that was a victory, one more small one in this now six-year battle to stop fracking in England. (It has already been blocked in Wales and Scotland, not to mention France, Germany and Bulgaria.)

Small village

And those small victories have added up to something big. Back when fracking was aiming to get started in Balcombe, the expectation was that there would be an entire industry operating by now, but instead public opposition has grown and grown, protests have slowed and prevented activity.

The very weak arguments made then about gas being needed as a “bridging fuel” until renewables came on line have entirely evaporated as renewables have come online far faster, and at far lower prices, than predicted.

Huge credit is due to the many thousands of people who’ve given up their time and energy to show their opposition, and keep a close check on what the industry is doing – what their importation of the cowboy culture of US fracking looks like at close hand.

After Tinker Lane, I visited the protection camp at Misson, where Ineos’s activity had visibly, although chaotically, stepped up.

The protectors told me that three times in the one day vehicles had breached the traffic management plan. Vehicles are supposed to enter and leave the site not through this small village, with its school, nursery, and tightly bending road but from the other direction. The security guards were at one stage not wearing their proper identification.

When history is written, there’s a good chance the fight against fracking will be seen as an important part of the awakening to determination for parliament to reflect the will of the people.

Overheated planet

Police on the gate – there were two standing there and at least four more sat in a van around the corner – were frustrated at their inability to get information about what the company was planning. “Well there was supposed to be a lorry at 2pm, but it hasn’t turned up so it probably won’t now,” was all the gate guard could say, with a shrug, about 3.30pm.

I heard from local people here just how traumatic the whole issue has been for them – lack of sleep and stress is clearly having a significant health toll.

But one of the things that struck me about this visit, as to my recent one to Preston New Road, is about how conversation on the frackers’ gates has moved on.

Of course we’re still talking about the certainly local environmental impacts – the lorries, the water use, and the noise and light pollution - “don’t worry about the gas flaring I heard a Lancashire planning officer say, “you can always get blackout blinds” – and the risks of spills and contamination.

And about climate change – how we need to be moving away, fast, from fossil fuels – the carbon stored in the grounds over aeons being left there, instead of lifted into the atmosphere of our already overheated planet.

Take control

But the top topic of conversation these days in democracy. “We thought this was a free country,” is a common sentiment.

Most of the people working day after day, week after week, on the anti-fracking effort are not longtime political activists. They’re small business people, grandmas, parents, workers taking days off when they can, who’ve been horrified by what is being done to their communities. And by their lack of ability to take control of what’s happening.

At Tinker Lane it was striking since my last visit how many more passing locals have clearly been alerted to the fracking attempt, and the issues around it. Toots and waves of support come thick and fast, from lorry drivers, from people in suits, from parents ferrying their children.

Tinker Lane, Misson, Woodsetts, and many other communities threatened by fracking have made up their mind against it. The British public has come out in clear and obvious opposition to it.

But we have a government that wants to press on regardless, and an industry using the courts to seek to draconianly end peaceful protest.

Power doctrine

When history is written, there’s a good chance the fight against fracking will be seen as an important part of the awakening to determination for parliament to reflect the will of the people. It certainly doesn’t now - with 68 percent of votes not really counting in 2017.  This is a fight to stop resources, money and control being seized by Westminster - while the rest of the country has politics done to it.

Reflecting that, today Theresa May will be confronted outside parliament by 100 women dressed in the costumes of 100 years ago, as the suffragettes and suffragists were dressed, many of them travelling down from Lancashire.

Their message is simple: “Let communities decide on fracking, without the top-down power doctrine of central government.”

One hundred years on from some women getting the vote, there are growing numbers of women and men determined to complete the work of the campaigners then – to end the astonishing centralisation of power in London, and take back control of their communities.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.

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