Something magical and important is happening in the normally quiet Sussex Tory heartland village of Balcombe. Preconceptions and prejudices are being challenged and broken down, national debate is being provoked, and a clear victory has already been won over Lord Browne’s UK fracking exploration company, Cuadrilla, who have announced the suspension of their drilling operations for a period of six days, while the “Reclaim the Power” climate camp is held nearby.
Yesterday marked the official first day of the camp, although organisers took the field earlier in the week and had already erected a huge marquee and some other key structures the day before, in anticipation of large numbers of supporters in a “swoop” at lunchtime.
Perhaps because of the rain, perhaps because of the drilling suspension, maybe some apathy, or other commitments, the “swoop” turned out to be more of a dribble, and at the appointed time a few dozen activists, accompanied by as many police and journalists, marched for ten minutes down the country road to the gates of the Cuadrilla site where they received a very warm welcome from the ecologically conscious road-side camp which is beginning its fourth week of occupation there.
The ‘Reclaim the Power’ site itself is a further two miles along the road, in a field that the organisers have squatted, taking great pains to communicate with the landowner, who, reassured that the field will not be damaged, has agreed not to take any action. I was given an official ‘media tour’ of the camp, which has strict policies on photography.
Dominating the centre of the field is a huge marquee, which will house plenary meetings, assemblies, workshops, and evening entertainment (a rumour was going around that ‘Primal Scream’ would be putting in an appearance). Around that are various smaller workshop tents, two kitchens, a compost toilet area, info and media tents, and camping areas. Around me, volunteers were busy setting up a plumbing system from a standing pipe, erecting solar panel arrays, wiring up lighting, and making sure the site is wheelchair accessible and child-friendly.
Talking to both local residents and visiting activists during the course of the afternoon, I kept hearing similar inspiring accounts of mutual trust, solidarity, and the emergence of a common realisation that ‘democracy’ has failed this community, and that ‘direct action’ is a viable and appropriate alternative.
Before taking the decision to move their planned camp from West Burton Power Station to Balcombe, “No Dash For Gas” activists held a public meeting at Balcombe village hall. Within minutes, all conversation turned away from concerns over “violent anarchists” to a lively and excited debate on ways to close down Cuadrilla’s operation and how to increase the number of people attending the camp.
Despite Balcombe Parish Council’s slightly loaded welcoming signs, there is absolutely no doubt that a huge majority of local people are not just supportive, but are deeply thankful for the activist influx. Having tried the letter-writing, petitioning, lawful, democratic route for up to two years now, they have begun to realise what many minorities, dispossessed, and poverty-ridden UK communities have known for years, that the democratic process is a smoke and mirrors illusion designed to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.
Balcombe residents are well-educated people, and they’ve looked at the independent environmental and economic research around fracking, turning their concerns from simple ‘nimbyism’ into what I like to coin ‘nompism’ (as in “not on my planet”). As the roadside camp, with its yoga tent, children’s crèche, kitchen and information areas, has grown over four weeks, many of those arrested obstructing delivery lorries have been locals never before involved in direct action, not activists.
The unusual alliance has helped create widespread national media coverage, and while the Daily Mail has stuck to its predictable ‘anarchist scare’ model, there has been serious informed debate, revelations of flawed planning processes and dodgy emails right to the heart of government, and inadequate attempts by the PM to respond and defend the government’s energy strategy.
Although Cuadrilla, citing advice from Sussex police, have temporarily halted operations, Monday is still planned as a day of action against the site.
Having taken a good look around, I think there should be a substantial prize on offer to anyone achieving an incursion to the drill site, whether before, during or after the planned day of direct action on Monday. This is no huge power station with long unguarded perimeter fences. The inner area is no bigger than a football field, and is protected by strong 12 foot high close-meshed security fencing topped with serious looking razor wire coils.
Outside this is a no-man’s land patrolled by a dozen or more G4S security guards who all happen to be ex-Ghurkas, guard dogs, and several vans of police. This area is then surrounded by a much more basic double-layer of metal fencing which wouldn’t constitute a major obstacle in itself.
The whole area is covered by floodlights, and surrounded on two sides by woodland, on one by a field of young Christmas fir trees, and on the fourth side by the road and a bank.
As well as the climate camp and the roadside camp, some folk have set up their tents next to the fir tree field and in the woodland. After a small stand-off yesterday afternoon, police have apparently agreed not to attempt any eviction of these structures, while establishing their ‘right’ to patrol the area. The campers are claiming their own rights under Section 6 squatting laws, but whether the Police honour their agreement come Monday is anybody’s guess.
There was a fair amount of national media in attendance yesterday, and much interest in the celeb support provided by Vivienne Westwood, who spoke quite eloquently about her concerns over fracking.
There was also a BBC team with their own resident expert, an academic from Leicester University, who had to concede many though not all of the arguments raised by very well-informed locals in a filmed ‘heated debate’ outside the gates to the site.
There is a packed programme of events at both camps over the weekend and into next week, and although the planned ‘swoop’ was a disappointment, there was a constant stream of new arrivals during the rest of the day, with plenty expected over the weekend. The largest transient crowd is likely to be on Sunday afternoon, when a solidarity march is planned at 3pm.
For full details, visit http://www.nodashforgas.org.uk or follow @nodashforgas