Three men have become the first environmental protesters to be imprisoned since 1932, after they prevented deliveries being made to a fracking site. The sentencing has prompted criticism from MPs and environmental groups concerned over the attack on the right to peaceful protest.
Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, a trade piano restorer; Richard Loizou, 31, a teacher; and Richard Roberts, 36, a soil scientist, face almost four years behind bars between them for protesting against the controversial energy firm Cuadrilla.
The men camped on top of lorries near the Preston New Road site in Lancashire for four days as supportive locals kept them going by throwing up food and blankets. Their sentencing, after they were found guilty of public nuisance, comes two days after fracking equipment was moved onto the site.
Supporters – including family members, local residents and one of the defendants' pupils – gathered outside Preston Crown Court on Wednesday holding "Frack Free Lancashire" flags aloft and wearing red roses in solidarity with the men as the jail terms were handed down. The men remained defiant in spite of the court's decision. "This won’t break us, we will come out stronger," Blevins said. "Some may view us as victims, but we refuse to be victimised by this. The real victims will be future generations suffering preventable disasters caused by climate change. Our friends and fellow campaigners outside will continue to fight for a ban on fracking and for a just transition to a renewable and democratically owned energy system."
Speaking in court on Tuesday on behalf of one of the accused, Kirsty Brimelow QC urged the judge to apply a proportional sentence and cited numerous cases where activists tried for public nuisance offences had caused far greater disruption and were not sent to prison.
Brimelow said that the right to freedom of speech went beyond "simply standing and shouting", and extended to non-violent direct action. The defending QC said the fact that central government had overturned a decision by Lancashire county council to reject Cuadrilla's fracking application demonstrated that "political process has been exhausted".
Anti-fracking campaigners staged a series of subsequent protests over the course of a month this summer, causing significant traffic disruption on the Fylde Coast following sustained protests by local residents and campaigners over the past five years.
Some 350 anti-fracking protesters have been arrested since January of 2017, when Cuadrilla began constructing a fracking pad at the site. However, until now, all previous cases resulted in non-custodial punishments, while a trespassing ban at the site was recently extended for the next two years.
The region is now set for the UK’s biggest round of fracking since it was temporarily banned in 2011 after the company caused minor earthquakes near Blackpool, while the sentenced men are destined for HMP Preston.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: "These men were standing up for all of us against the government's dangerous decision to launch a whole new fossil fuel industry – at a time when we're already seeing the effects of climate chaos. Now, three of them are in prison in what constitutes a worrying attack on the right to peacefully protest. The harsh treatment of these protesters and the government's decision to overrule local communities who are opposed to this industry tell us something – we're winning the fight against fracking."
Greenpeace UK said that anti-fracking campaigners deserve our gratitude, not a prison term; and that peaceful protest is a democratic necessity.
"Peaceful protest is the safety-valve of a healthy democracy," Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said. "It allows ordinary people to protect their health, families and homes from harm when all other safeguards have failed. It's a strange society that massively rewards those responsible for causing more climate change while putting those trying to stop it in jail."
The organisation criticised the government for changing laws, taking away homeowners' rights and distorting the planning process to make way for the shale industry.
Dave Timms from Friends of the Earth said: "To receive a custodial sentence for a crime which was one of conscience and entirely peaceful is incredibly harsh. It is difficult to see how the public interest is served by sending these activists into an already overcrowded prison system."
The protesters' sentence arrives as the government comes under criticism from all sides over proposals to allow fracking companies to carry out exploratory drilling without local government planning permission.
However, Labour is committed to a ban on fracking, and around 20 Conservative MPs are expected to vote against the proposal if ministers attempt to push it through parliament next year, meaning that it's likely the government would lose a vote.
Campaigners have set up a petition to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights calling for a thematic inquiry into the declining space for civil society to effectively oppose the fracking industry in the UK.