Organisers had billed it as the biggest demonstration against fracking so far in the UK. It's a Saturday morning, and more than 2,000 protesters are gathered in Manchester to march against the controversial method for drilling shale gas. Even human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger is here.
At 11AM I join the protesters converging on Piccadilly Gardens. Dressed in a white biohazard suit, artist Joe had travelled from Morecambe to vent his anger. "I'm trying to dress as someone who works on a fracking field," the 23-year-old says. "But the reality is people living near these frack sites won't get this protective clothing, so will be subjected to toxic amounts of chemicals in their air and water supply daily."
Last month, the government gave the go-ahead for fracking at Cuadrilla's Preston New Road site at Little Plumpton in Lancashire, overturning a county council decision to refuse permission. Among the banners, one seems to epitomise the mood of the throng: "THERESA, WE ARE FUCKING DIS-MAY-ED".
"I'm wearing black because I'm mourning the death of democracy," says 69-year-old Linda – she's one of the "Nanas", a frontline anti-fracking campaigner group. They often wear Hilda Ogden headscarfs and tabards emblazoned with "the over gloves are off." She feels it's ironic that May, who began her premiership by pledging to give people more control over their lives, is now "riding roughshod over the will of communities in Lancashire. It's an affront to not only the environment, but the government's own commitment towards localism," she continues.
At midday, the march heads off, led by Jagger, and snaking through the city centre. As the din of drums, whistles and chants of "say it loud, say it clear: fracking is not welcome here" passes, staff from local cafés stand outside and applaud – perhaps reflective of the fact public support for fracking fell to just 17 percent in April, a new low.
Wearing a pink Blackpool "Frack Me Quick" hat – famously fracking was halted in 2011 when tests triggered tremors near the seaside resort – demonstrator Pete says: "The vast majority of people are already on our side – we just need to get them active. I'm wearing a cowboy hat to go with the cowboys that run fracking."
In August, the prime minister announced she would offset NIMBYism (not in my backyard-ism) by allowing those living near fracking sites to receive cash payments, so that they benefit from the developments. But as she pounds the pavement, Olive – who says she lives metres away from the Preston New Road site – feels it's nothing more than a sop.
"I'm devastated that it's come to this where our own councils voted they don't want fracking, then Theresa May-Be – as we call her – decided yes you're having it," says the 69-year-old. "Then she thinks she can bribe us with cash – we won't be bought off that easily. You can't breath oil and eat money. This isn't about me – it's about my 20 grandkids."
At the Castlefield Bowl – the rally's destination – Greater Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham MP delivers a crowd-pleasing speech, pledging to "stand up against it [fracking]" if elected. "These fantastic campaigners from Lancashire – how can it be right that their voice is taken away by a government that's too close to the vested interests of big business and has rigged the law in their favour?" he asks. "That's what George Obsorne and the Tories have done – taken the public for granted, taken the say off local people."
Later, Jagger claims the government is selling the UK down the (doubtless polluted) river. "Fracking violates our fundamental rights – our rights to life, our rights to water, our rights to air, our rights to our healthy environment and for that reason, we cannot give up – we must stand together against them."
Happy Mondays "vibes man" Bez – who's been shaking his maracas at frackers since 2014 – mingles with protesters in the crowd. "We can't have Westminster overruling local council decisions because that's a corporate dictatorship that ignores the people's will," the 52-year-old tells VICE. "May doesn't care about us. She's following her own agenda, and we're not included in it."
Like many here today, he's not optimistic of a U-turn. Despite years of debate and disputes, the government is committed to establishing a shale gas industry in the northwest, with a number of exploration licences already awarded. Ministers highlight the potential economic benefits including reduction of energy bills and the potential to create thousands of jobs – those here today remain sceptical. Cuadrilla aims to begin fracking at the end of 2017; hopes are being pinned on a judicial review to delay that.
"Realistically, we know the decision has already been made – this is more about voicing our feelings," admits Ann, 54, from Accrington. "Then again, we've defied the odds so far and stopped fracking for five and a half years – we refuse to just lie down and take this."
Controversial anti-fracking geologist David Smythe – also speaking today – tells VICE it will be economic realities rather than public opinion that leads to its downfall, claiming investors "will realise there's no money to be made out of fracking – it's all a huge ponzi scheme." He's flown from his home in France – where fracking has been banned since 2011 – to be here. "If anyone tries to set up a seismic survey or drill a well, the French won't just be holding banners – they'll be burning down the trucks and setting fire to things."
He surveys the good-natured crowd – which includes a Gandalf holding a "DON'T FRACK THE SHIRES" placard, a rabbit and somebody in full wizard attire playing panpipes along to New Order's "Blue Monday" – and concludes: "I fear the problem is you're all too polite here."
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