Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: [When Girl Meets Oil] Evolution of a Corporate Idealist

Evolution of a Corporate Idealist
A hundred years ago the mills of Glossop were booming. Most have gone now, but we still have the Partington theatre, a legacy of a benevolent mill owner and which puts on plays, film shows and occasionally opera. We also have Woods Hospital, where L S Lowry died, a gift to the town from another mill owner, Samuel Hill-Wood, who's largesse also briefly propelled our local football team to the top division in English football.

The charitable work of these liberal Capitalists used to be called Paternalism, and sometime during the twentieth century it disappeared along with other such British institutions as the Dinner Hour and the Tea Trolley.

However today it is back, and going by the name of Corporate Social Responsibility.

We Dominate Because We Care


I knew a bit about CSR before I picked up this book. I knew CSR people spoke a different language to the rest of us, one of Supply Chain Initiatives and Stakeholder Engagement. I also knew a few companies that had been hot on CSR, such as Shell, British American Tobacco and the late and unlamented Enron. I had also knew it sucked in people who I was sure were headed for glittering careers in the world of Human Rights law and such like. So what happens to them when they take the corporate shilling?

To those of us on the outside, giant corporations are just impenetrable black boxes, the inner workings of which we know almost nothing about. We see the human and natural resources going in, and the pollution and executive remuneration coming out, and assume everyone inside is of the same mindset. As a result the dialogue between company insiders and activist outsiders is often one of the mutually deaf, with the gulf between us as large as the one CSR pioneer BP filled with oil four years ago.

That was bad news for the environment, but a decade earlier it was globalised Capitalism that appeared to be on the ropes. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments had bitten the dust and the 1999 World Trade Association meeting had ended in bloody confrontation between protestors and police. The barbarians were at the gate and something needed to be done to safeguard the corporation. Was CSR that something?

Girl meets oil


Whilst they were fighting on the streets of Seattle, down at Yale Christine Bader was completing her MBA. She had already decided she was neither going to sell her soul for money, nor don a balaclava herself. She had been seduced by the Sun King, aka England's own John Browne, dapper CEO of oil giant BP and so, although it wasn't called that then, she ended up in CSR.

Given my views on, as he is now, Lord Browne you would probably expect me to regard this as a bad start. However I do remember how he came across at the time, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt here. Plenty of other perfectly sensible people really did think a fancy new logo meant that butterflies really would start coming out of BPs oil wells.

Soon Ms. Bader was in Indonesia doing pioneering work to endure BP's Tangguh plant was built with minimum disruption to the local population. Then she was in Shanghai proving that you can do business in China without compromising human rights, before being seconded to the UN to help to write the international gold standards on the subject. And none of that was as easy I've just made it sound.

Meanwhile it all was all going horribly wrong for BP first in Scotland, then in Texas City, then Alaska and finally in the Gulf of Mexico. The company she done such good work for suddenly turned out not to be an ethical business, but a corporate villain. They had put short term profits over long term safety, had promoted those who cut corners and punished those who raised concerns, had ignored near misses and taken risks which with hindsight looked incredibly foolish.

Ms Bader had nothing to do with any of that, but how a person who is clearly clever than I am could spend the best part of a decade in such a dysfunctional organisation without smelling a rat is the question that runs through this book. Was she fooled? Did she just see what she wanted to see? Or was her part of BP different to the rest of the company?

The answer appears to be a bit of all three.

Certainly Ms Bader admits to not looking too carefully behind the curtain. Had she realised that Browne only talked about Climate Change so that it could sell gas to power companies, or that whilst Browne was talking human rights to the world he was getting secrets from his spy in Greenpeace, she might have been a bit more cynical.

On the other hand BP's work in Indonesia and China, as well as the parallel progress on human rights in Columbia, was genuinely innovative.

Why?

Inside the beast


Certainly it wasn't too onerous for them; a few hundred thousand dollars spent as part of a multi-billion dollar project. But whilst Ms Bader is clear to repeat that isn't all about money, when outraged locals can cost a big company millions of dollars when they get spikey CSR does start to look like good value for money. All of which suggests to me, with my activist head on, that what the world really needs is not more CSR professionals, but more rioting mobs.

I suspect Ms. Bader knows this too. She's also aware of the contradictions of being a Corporate Idealist. She is cynical about a colleague working for an investment bank who was seemingly oblivious to where most of its money went, but at the same time she realises she was blind to most of what BP were doing as well. She also knows CSR people can end up just being wheeled out to help bury bad news.

But she also tells of the often cathartic experience of confronting the C-suite with the material evidence of how the decisions they make impact on the people at the bottom of the corporate food chain. It can take a big stick to get progress, but that change can be profound and genuine.

Decline of a Corporate Cynic



So what did I learn from this book?

Firstly, although Ms. Bader and her colleagues will say this is not what CSR should be, for the moment it is just an add-on. That's partly because, whilst you can drill for oil whilst supporting oppressive regimes or you can drill for oil respecting human rights, and either way it's still oil, if you take an issue like Climate Change seriously you just wouldn't drill for oil in the first place.

BP may now take seriously the problem of its rigs exploding, but in its latest Sustainability Report it say that Arctic oil "offers significant opportunities to help meet the world’s growing energy needs", mentions Climate Change only in terms of their own emissions, doesn't mention tar sands at all, but boasts about how they recycle their cooking oil in Tangguh. This seems to me to be a failure of the very first stage of CSR; that is acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place. Still, at least they're not fracking (yet).

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


So it's not surprising Corporate Idealists and Green activists don't always get along. Add in that whilst CSR people earn a fraction of the wages of the C-suite whose reputations they safeguard, they don't do too badly all told and they very rarely find themselves in Russian gaols or on the business end of police truncheons and you have two groups of people who are going to struggle to bond.

But despite that this book makes clear that the dance between insiders and outsiders is a complicated and important one. BP did well on human rights in Indonesia and China in no small part because Ms. Bader had a gang of NGOs breathing down her neck. Meanwhile in the Gulf they were left alone to do their own thing. So maybe it was actually my team that took its eye off the ball. Oops.

So the Corporate Idealist needs the NGO activist and vice versa. It takes two to tango. Ms Bader knows this, I think many Human Rights NGOs know it too, but how many of us Greens get the message? Not enough I think.

All of which makes Evolution of a Corporate Idealist essential reading, especially for corporate cynics like me.

Indeed, afterwards I thought the clash of idealism and practicality was such a great story someone really should write a novel about it.

Now there's an idea.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Frack Free Glossop's submission to the DECC Fracking Consultation submition.

1. Do you think that the Environmental Report has identified the significant environmental effects of the activities that follow the licensing round? If not, what other significant effects do you think we have missed, and why?

The most significant effect of fracking is the emission of greenhouse gases. This is both the carbon dioxide produced when it is burnt, as well as the leakage of methane from the fracking site and from stored and transported gas.

The effect of these emissions needs to be considered against the timescale over which they are produced. Fracking is not going to reach it's full potential until at least 2025. By this time we will be five years away from the European Union's 2030 Energy and Climate goals. These have not been set yet but they will be a waypoint on the road to an 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

I do not know of any realistic emissions path for this country that can involve bring a new fossil fuel online in 2025 and meeting these targets.


2. Do you agree with the conclusions of the report and the recommendations for avoiding, reducing or off-setting significant effects of the activities that follow the licensing round? If not, what do you think should be the key recommendations and why?


I do not agree with the report and I do not see anything that will offset the greenhouse gas emissions from fracking in a way that keeps us within any like EU 2030 Energy and Climate goals with any realistic scenario for UK emissions.

3. Do you agree with the proposed arrangements for monitoring significant of the activities that follow the licensing round, detailed in the Environmental Report? If not, what measures do you propose?

I do not see that it is possible to frack and to stay within targets to prevent dangerous Climate Change.

However if fracking is to take place it is vital that the issue of fugitive methane emissions is measured and addressed before this happens. This will involve regulatory and engineering considerations to prevent well failure over a period of one hundred years or more. This is unlikely to be possible.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Can You Frack Responsibly?

13 January 2014 was an interesting morning at Barton Moss.

The weather was great, with stars when I arrived and clear blue skies when I left. I guess that comes of having Druids in the camp; they have friends amongst the elementals. I expect it will piss it down for the Igas summer barbecue.

The previous day there had been an amazing turn out for the Barton Moss Solidarity Day; 1000 people according to ITV, 250 according to the BBC and somewhere between 600 and 800 according to those of us who were there.

There weren't that many the next morning for the regular Monday convoy, but when the lorries arrived and they were still met by a wall of Protectors across Barton Moss Lane. The police pushed most of us back up the road, but three lorries were immobilized by climbers. Then Tristan nearly got flatten by a fourth.

I had been listening to Seize the Day in the car on the way over (sorry planet, but there's not a lot of sustainable transport at 6AM) and now there was Theo Simon on top of a lorry. Next time I'll listen to Elvis, that would get the press down to the Moss.

Not that we had a problem that morning. We had Daybreak TV, Channel 4, local BBC, a freelance snapper and others. People were interviewed and I got my mug on the telly, however the main story wasn't us for once. Instead the real news that day was that the opposition, AWOL for the last three months, had finally showed up.

Igas's PR machine has been sounding like a stuck record since the camp began, telling us they respect the right to protest as long as it doesn't disrupt the locals, whilst the press continued to show a lot of obstructive locals holding up Igas vehicles.

Igas certainly had a bit of a problem up in Manchester, and their backers were getting twitchy. The Investors Chronicle said "we suspect environmental resistance will greatly intensify once IGas actually applies to frack a shale gas well". They note Igas has enough conventional oil to ride out any problems, but the warning was there.

However that doesn't mean that the fracking industry as a whole was intending to take all this lying down. Various groups put up strategies on how to deal with us, some of which were public, and the best of these was by Control Risks.

In an excellent report that summarises the international anti-fracking movements they also explained how the opposition worked, with experienced Climate Change activists seeding local groups. That is indeed what was happening near Barton Moss, with meetings organised by Climate Camp veterans leading to the formation of Irlam and Cadishead Frack Free.

The report ends with three recommendations for overcoming the anti-frackers. Firstly acknowledge past grievances, second engage with communities, thirdly reduce impacts, and fourthly create more winners.

Interesting then what happened that Monday morning.

We had Lord Browne on the TV telling us how "it's not all been perfect in the USA" and that regulations here are much tougher. We had the Prime Minister at a fracking site in Lincolnshire announcing that councils could keep twice the usual amount of business rates from frackers. Not much community engagement, but Igas had been doing a bit of that, although they would throw in the towel some time in February.

So they were certainly reading from the Control Risks book.The question is, did it work? Judging by the opinion polls, and the turnout for the rally in Manchester, no.

So can you frack responsibly?

The recent report Are we fit to frack? by the National Trust, RSPB and other wildlife groups set out a list of ten recommendations ranging from better regulation to frack free zones. The report is quite clear this is not what we have at the moment.

Indeed, Freedom of Information requests from the Environment Agency about what they have been doing at Barton Moss show how far away from this ideal the reality is. Agency staff have been checking workers have been wearing their hard hats and all the paperwork is in order, but there has been no measurement of baseline methane contamination in the water table or anything else in the way of measuring the current state of the environment, let alone the effect of the drilling.

With the EA facing more cuts it is also questionable whether even this cursory level of supervision could be maintained when there are multiple fracking sites in the country.

What's more there are reasons to be extremely cynical about the appetite for better regulation. Cameron and Browne may talk the talk, but they are not backing it up with actions. We know they all meet up in secret to plan how to deal with the likes of us, and whilst we can't be a fly on the wall of those discussions, we can see what emerges.

Indeed, the drive for 'world class regulation' appears to be going in reverse, with lobbying from the UK resulting in the EU opting out of regulations that would apply to conventional wells and leaving it up to national governments.

Then there is the particularly tricky issue of whether or not you can actually regulate an industry like fracking. Regulation can stop companies dumping their waste water in the canal, and can reduce the risk of some idiot spilling his load where he should, but fracking is intrinsically dangerous, especially in a place like England.

Stopping well linings from cracking is ultimately not about law, but engineering. A report for the European Commission noted that whilst good practice could reduce the risks, we don't yet know how well casing will wear in the long term. It also points out the effects of geology.

We are not the USA for lots of different reasons. Here the rock beneath our feet is heavily faulted, which is a problem. So far only one well in the UK has actually been fracked - the one near Blackpool that caused the earth tremor. The quake certainly worried people, but the earth moving for you may not be the main problem when you frack. Faults mean there is a path that fracking fluid can use to get from where it was put to where we don't want it to be. Already Chevron, no wimps when it comes to trashing the environment, have pulled out of Poland on the grounds of "too complex" geology.

So even with the best will, and the best regulations, in the world, fracking may not be safe. And we clearly have neither at the moment.

Opposition to unconventional gas started with concerns about Climate Change, and they are not going to go away, but neither are the risks to the local environment from this unwanted and unnecessary fossil fuel.

So who wants a wind turbine instead?

Monday, 10 March 2014

Wild Garlic


Beauty comes in at the eye, but memories enter via the nose. Like the smell of school semolina and new born babies, the scent of wild garlic is one which has stuck in my brain and is forever associated with one time and one place.

The place is here, the damp valley of the River Bollin as it winds its way through the Cheshire countryside, just after its confluence with the River Dean and close to the village of Mobberley. The time is 1997, when Oasis ruled the charts, New Labour is on the brink of power and Swampy is famous.

There should be the smell of wood smoke too, but as I walk the muddy path for the first time in ten years my imagination adds that. It adds other things too, things that have no place in such an idyllic English country scene, arc lights, security guards, police in riot gear or on quad bikes.  

It is May now. The ground is wet, the trees have a thin covering of leaves. Here and there the hawthorn is in blossom. The path rises to drier ground and the scent of garlic, fresh in the damp air, diminishes. As it does so a high pitched whine also rises and then turns into a deep roar. The angry sound subsides to a sigh and a gleaming white jet airliner rises above the trees in front of me.

This is why I was here ten years ago, to stop this bit of Cheshire countryside disappearing under concrete in order to become Manchester Airport’s second runway. We failed, but not though want of trying.

This place changed me, all those years ago. The person who left this spot was not the one who arrived.

Partly this was my age. Twenty seven, what astrologers call the Saturn Return, when the great ringed planet completes its orbit around the sun and returns to the position in the sky it held when you were a baby, a time which has traditionally marked the end of youth.

Partly this was the inevitable result of the way my life was moving. Ten years after leaving my parents home I was, like Odysseus, on the eve of finding my true home and, in due course, my Penelope.

But in no small part I credit the magic of this place, and of the spell that was woven here by the noble wizards and warriors who tried to save this little piece of England from the concrete.

I wasn’t aware of the changes that were taking place in me at the time. A friend I wrote to regularly though was. She noted the change in my letters. At first they were full of the politics of the protest, with talk of Climate Change, emissions targets and government policy. By the end though I wrote about nothing outside of the immediate area of our camp. I described the trees, the mud, the sights and the sounds, the mysterious visitors in the night, and the smell of the wild garlic. My fight had moved from the political to the personal.

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Politically this was the tail end of the Road Protest Movement of the 1990s.

That had started in 1993, on legend-haunted Twyford Down in Hampshire, with a motley collection of Travellers and young activists camping out to stop the widening of the M3 motorway round Winchester. The travelling army then moved to London in an attempt to stop the building of the M11, then up north to stop the M65 near Blackburn.

It all came to a head in 1996, when the building of the Newbury Bypass saw ten thousand trees chopped down and over one thousand arrests. By then the cost had become too much for the treasury and the government pulled the plug on the 'greatest road building program since the Romans'. There was a final cameo at Fairmile in Devon, where Swampy became a tabloid sensation after holding out in his tunnel for a week, but then there were no more roads to oppose.

So when Manchester Airport planned to build a second runway on 400 acres of Cheshire Greenbelt, the travelling circus moved up north and set up camp. This was almost my back yard and so, not having much else to do at the time, I came and joined in.

I pitched my tent in the camp known as Wild Garlic. Located at the heart of the development site, where the new runway would cross the River Bollin, we were as far as possible from civilization and completely out of sight. The camp itself was a cluster of ash, beech and birch trees on a slope, with farmland at the top and flood meadow at the bottom. 

We were definitely rather more chilled out than the big camps. Whilst the others put up fortifications to keep people out, we decorated our ‘front door’ with ribbons to invite people in. Our token defensive gesture was a wooden drawbridge over the muddy ditch that marked the limit of the camp. Come the day the authorities decided to pay us a visit, this was defeated by a policeman with longer than average legs. 

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Ten years ago there were a lot of police in the quiet woods. 

Walking the footpath I am now on by day you would have passed them parked up in their vans, usually bored. Beyond them the Land Rovers of security guards patrolled around a fence topped with barbed wire. More security guards huddled in groups, their rank indicated by the colour of their helmets.

Within the fence were the five camps where the protesters lived. Everyone was waiting for the day when the courts would allow the authorities to begin removing them. Around the camps vehicles had churned the grass into mud so that passengers taking off from the airport looked down on five islands of green amongst a sea of devastation.

By night the area was even busier. Whilst the security clustered under arc lights, figures would move silently in the shadows. When morning revealed a section of fence missing or a lighting rig toppled, the blame was laid at the door of the ‘pixies’.

These three groups of people - police, security and protesters - interacted with each other and this place in complicated ways. 

The security guards, the unemployed of Manchester offered a few weeks’ work at basic pay, were suspicious of the police they were supposed to be working with. They would tell me that once they were home and had taken off their uniforms they were regarded once more as the enemy by the boys in blue. Such was life in nineties Britain. 

Of the protesters, they were mainly incredulous. Most had grown up in the city on council estates. When I first arrived, a group watched in wonder as I put up my tent and seriously questioned if I intended to sleep in it. Of the people who made their homes in rickety ‘twigloos’ in the branches of trees, they had only admiration.

The police were more reticent in their dealings with us. Always with one eye on more serious matters, they usually dealt with us fairly whilst keeping their distance. An extremely laid back liaison officer was assigned, a veteran of two decades carrying a machine gun around the airport, and friction was mostly avoided. 

For example, when the police started taking an interest in the pits we were digging around the camp and covering with tarpaulins, a confidential intelligence briefing was produced with diagrams of IRA mortar positions recently used to attack Heathrow Airport. Noting the similarity we agree to allow an inspection of our holes. Having thus been reassured that our toilet facilities were not a danger to anyone except the person using them, the authorities were placated.

The protesters, meanwhile, were a very mixed bunch. Many were veterans of the previous campaigns, but for many others though this was their first experience of both protest and life outside of the city. Some, products of the antibiotic age and rebels against the advice of parental authority figures, neglected basic hygiene and soon retired from camp on health grounds. 

Those who survived though soon settled into a routine of work and fun. Most took to the air, constructing homes in the sky and aerial walkways to link them.

Those of us with no head for heights though would burrow into the red earth. The clay soil was perfect for this and so we dug in like soldiers preparing to endure a heavy bombardment. The Manchester clay is apparently similar to the soil of the Somme, to the extent that in the First World War the 'clay kickers' who had dug the Manchester sewers were drafted in to tunnel under the German lines. If they were like other soldiers in the trenches, they would have used garlic as a natural antibiotic.

And whilst we tunnelled the aeroplanes continued to fly. The camps were at the end of the original runway, and planes taking off appeared to graze the top of nearby Zion Tree, deafening whoever happened to be occupying the Pterodactyls' Nest twigloo. On the surface the first hint of a take-off was the high pitched whine which slowly turned into a bass roar. Underground the order was reversed, starting with the tunnel walls shaking and ending with the hiss of the plane passing overhead.

Opponents of airport expansion we may have been, but seeing the operations of a large airport at such close quarters it was hard not to be amazed by the marvelous technological achievement of modern air travel, which has joined the world together like no other invention. At any one time there is the equivalent of the population of Manchester in the air. On 99 days out of 100, every single one of those passengers will arrive safely, which isn't something you can say about many means of transport
.
However it is an achievement only made possible by the chance existence of oil. The kerosene used as aviation fuel has twice the energy density of TNT, and every day Manchester Airport used 3000 tons of the stuff. As it combines with oxygen when it is burnt, a ton of aviation fuel produces two and a half times its own weight in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and the primary component of man-made Climate Change. In addition the vapour trails of high flying jets also heat the air. A quick back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that the contribution to Global Warming from the aeroplanes using the airport is about half of the total emissions from the Greater Manchester area.

Those planes keep me company as I continue along the path. The River Bollin meanders through the trees on our right, a lazy river today with large areas of mud exposed on its flanks, dotted with the debris of previous floods.

But its merry wandering is brought up short when it meets the new runway. Here, at the point that marked the edge of River Rats camp, it has been funnelled into a new course which runs straight as a die under the tarmac. Where my cosy little tunnel was dug there is now a vast, semi-circular cavern ten metres high.

On this side there is no trace of Wild Garlic camp. What I do find though is a newly erected sign board, part of a walking trail marked out around the perimeter of the airport, which tells me that near this spot was found the remains of a Bronze Age village.

This is remarkable news. Our primitive camp had been built on top of a settlement from the days of the pagan Britons. I had no idea.
We'd known they were here before us, of course. How could we not? A short walk from the camp,

beyond the range of the patrolling security guards, was Lindow Moss, a little community on reclaimed land on the edge of the commuter town of Wilmslow. Lindow Man, known locally as Pete Marsh, had been found there.

Pete, a man who had done no manual work in at least the last year of his short life, had suffered a head injury and apparent strangulation before being dropped into the murky waters of the Moss. This suggests a ritual 'triple death' in Earth, Air and Water, a theory supported by the traces of mistletoe in his stomach, a plant sacred to the Druids of these isles.

Analysis of the radioactive carbon in his bones suggests a date for his death around the first century CE, so this sacrifice could have been made at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. Could Pete have come from this village, the one found under out camp, and given his life in an attempt to stop the invasion of the globalizing empire that invented concrete?  

So was this perhaps another reason this spot had such a profound effect, these ancient echoes contained in the soil? 

At first digging my tunnel had been a chore. I would force myself to work an hour at time underground, holding back the fear of becoming trapped, or of the roof caving in, before coming up for tea and fresh air. Then one day, as the siege lines around the camps drew closer, my view of the world changed suddenly. Safety, I now felt, was underground behind my locked steel door. My fear was of being caught in the open before I could reach the entrance to the tunnel. 

From then on I slept under the earth, dreaming that I was in a homely cavern deep underground. Perhaps I was influenced by Alan Garner, whose novel The Weird Stone of Briningamen opens with the story of a farmer from nearby Mobberley who sells a white mare to a bunch of knights sleeping under Alderley Edge.

Either way, it was because of this that I missed the pixie. Not one of the ones out to do the fences, but
a real one. Maybe.

Eviction day was approaching and things were tense in the camps. In Wild Garlic Ollie left a candle burning in his tree house when he popped out and set fire to the thing. In River Rats there was a climbing accident and Jonathon, a local man, was attacked by persons unknown whilst wandering in the trees at night.

And then Kim saw her Pixie.

Kim was from the Liverpool Earth First! group, a bunch of radical anarcho-greens from the big city, and so was not the sort person to be usually found out in the woods contemplating her navel and talking to the spirits in the trees. So it was therefore a bit of a shock to her when she leaned out of her tree house one night and saw on the ground below her a real live pixie. The fellow was about two feet high and looked a bit like Dobby the House Elf. She looked at the pixie, the pixie looked at her, and then it ran off through the undergrowth.


Two other people though confirmed that something had been in the camp that night. One person saw the creature running off, but it was too quick for him to identify it, whilst another heard but it but didn’t see it. 
 
I never actually found the tracks, but I suspect it was a fox, as we knew they visited our camps. Or maybe pixies pretend to be foxes sometimes to confuse the cynics, or that maybe pixies are just foxes that you catch a glimpse of in the night at special times. Anyone who’s heard a vixen’s mating cry in a lonely forest at night knows there is no ‘just’ about being a fox; they are spirits of the forest in their own right.

Kim’s story wasn’t unique. Many other people found living in the camps brought on mystical experiences. Living in twigloos brought on powerful dreams and some felt able to communicate with the trees they were guarding. Others saw black cats leaping from tree to tree or heard drumming coming from empty camps. In the woods of Newbury an amphibious beast launched itself out the canal whilst security guards claimed to have seen the ghosts of Civil War soldiers whose graves had been disturbed.

It was in those Newbury woods that Jim Hindle was led by dreams to defend the solitary Middle Oak, whilst at the same time he was haunted by a seeming premonition of its destruction. Druids blessed his tree, but still the dreams continued. Then, one morning, he woke to the sound of chainsaws. Another oak, almost Middle Oaks's twin, sited next to the main road and connected to it by a single strand of rope, like an umbilical cord, had been felled. Middle Oak survived and still stands today.

So if I was changed by my time at Wild Garlic, it was an experience I shared with many others.

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"Sorry"
"F*ck off"

This was the sum total of my conversation with one of Britain's elite soldiers, who I had just caught sneaking over the bridge from Zion Tree to Wild Garlic. Eviction day had found me on guard duty rather than in my tunnel. 

Following on the from the scary men-in-black were much politer police in their riot vans, then swarms of yellow coated security guards in Land Rovers, cheerful Welsh bailiffs on quad bikes then specialist climbers and underground rescue people. Watching them was the assembled mass press corps with their satellite link up vehicles. 

I joined them on the grass next to the Wilmslow Road and found everyone was being served tea by the mobile soup kitchen of the Salvation Army. We were being evicted, but in a very curious way.

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It is now 17 April 2010 and I have returned to the Bollin Valley again, but I find a very different scene to my last visit. 

Venus as the Evening Star sinks slowly into the West, following a blood red sun. The new moon hangs in the sky over the red eyes of the airport's radar dish. Wild garlic still infuses the night air. But the skies are empty, the wood is silent. There are no planes.

An Icelandic Volcano has grounded planes across Europe, and Manchester Airport is shut.

Thirteen years before, we produced a tape of songs recorded in the camps. It is a unique musical record, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that most of the songs are interrupted by a plane taking off. One contribution was called "Silence". Then it was ironic, now it seems prophetic.

In due course the ash clouds will pass and the planes return. Newly washed chives flown in from Ethiopia will reappear on the supermarket shelves, and
travellers will return from far flung destinations.

But for tonight at least, I am alone with the spirits of this place and able to dream that another world is possible.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Policing at Barton Moss, a Personal View

The Northern Gas Gala got underway on 27th November 2013 with forty or so people picketing a small private road called Barton Moss Lane in Salford.

The Lane is very much the edge of town. Next to Manchester City Airport, on one side is the Manchester, Salford and Stockport urban conglomeration. On the other it is countryside as far as Warrington. Historically it has the first canal in Britain, the Bridgewater, and also the last, the Manchester Ship Canal, and the railway that runs nearby was once used by Stephenson’s rocket. Now it was the front line of the new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking is a form of unconventional oil that is currently the target of resistance from campaigners around the world. Their concerns are the air pollution, noise, gas flaring and large number of lorries associated with a fracking site, large amounts of water that needs to be brought in and large amounts of waste needing to be taken out. They fear underground bore holes can crack and methane can end up where it’s not wanted: in the atmosphere, in the ground water and in people.

This combination of local and global concerns makes the anti-fracking movement a diverse one and that was reflected by the crowd gathered on that first morning. The famous Manchester rain was absent, but the Greater Manchester Police and was present in force. A quarter of the mile down the lane the onshore oil and gas company Igas had built a secure compound in which they were preparing for a drilling operation to determine whether or not the area was suitable for fracking.


The police and the campaigners, who styled themselves the Protectors of Barton Moss, squared off. The police commander asked politely if the way could be cleared for lorries to get to the site, and he was politely told that opposition to the work would be non-violent, but also non-negotiable.

Then the pushing started. Slowly the police moved the blockade of young and old, men and women down Barton Moss Lane. Some people pushed harder than others, and soon the first arrests were being made. It would be difficult to call the atmosphere friendly, but certainly there was none of the malice and aggression that was later to characterise the policing. However, if you were arrested by police you knew about it.

Rob Edwards from Glossop had become the first arrest of the campaign the previous day. A well built, former rugby player, he was also an experienced Greenpeace campaigner fully trained in non-violence who knew how to push ‘passive resistance’ to the limit. Adamant he did not want to be put in handcuffs, a dozen TAU officers pushed him face down on the floor and, using pressure points behind his ear, inflicted sufficient pain to get him to release his hands and let them cuff him. His bloodied face as he was loaded into the van became one of the first images of the campaign in the papers.

Two hours after the operation started the convoy of vehicles was safely in the Igas compound. That
first day set the tone for the first month of the campaign: the ‘slow walk’, the pushing and the arrests – a suspiciously regular five a day. The cue for the latter was usually the ritual change over from regular police to blue trousered TAU officers about half way down the lane.

Usually the pace of the walk was set by 82 year old Anne Power, a local Green Party candidate and formidable campaigner. She did not move fast enough for GMP and was regularly removed from the blockade ‘for her own safety’. As a result has Anne has probably now been arrested more often than any other octogenarian in Manchester.

Anne’s arrests did not endear GMP to the Protectors. Neither did an incident on Friday 13th December when police plunged into the crowd to make a seemingly random arrest, propelling a disabled Protector into a ditch in the process and breaking his leg.

However despite these incidents the daily ‘slow walks’, which continued through the worst weather of the winter, developed into a pattern and no matter how many, or how few, arrests were made, the convoys took about the same length of time to get down the Lane.

FLAREGATE


Then at the start of January everything changed. 

The first the Protectors knew about it was when someone spotted a report on the Greater Manchester Police Facebook page of a flare being fired at a GMP helicopter landing at Manchester City airport. Nobody in camp saw anything and it was assumed this might have been a New Year’s Eve firework someone had let off a few days late from one of the nearby estates.

However the police immediately put out a statement saying the flare had been fired from the camp with the intent of bringing down the helicopter, with an ominous reference to the fatal crash in Glasgow the previous November. Two days later the camp was searched, but no evidence was found. Inquiries in the Brookhouse and Irlem estates, and an appeal to drivers on the busy A57 that passed the airport, failed to produce any other witnesses to the flare, but GMP continued to report that it had been deliberately fired at the helicopter by the campaigners.

The Protectors had good reason to be unhappy with GMP after this. Not only were they now being labelled as terrorists, but the search of the tents had resulted in all their bedding being soaked in the Manchester rain – not recommended if you are camping in sub-zero temperatures. However animosity towards the police was usually restricted to the pages of social media, and on the ‘slow walks’ the incident was generally regarded as a bad joke.

BACKLASH


However the police were definitely not laughing now. Arrests became more regular and more violent. 

The campaign was now getting exactly the wrong sort of publicity, but that did not stop the next Solidarity Sunday mass rally drawing eight hundred people from around the country to the site. There were no lorries that day, and almost no police, and everything was peaceful.

However the police continued to repeat the claim about the flare. They even presented new ‘evidence’, in the form of a comment on an un-moderated social media page, supposedly by someone from the campaign, apparently confirming the story. There was no way of proving who posted this comment, and the wording used strongly suggested it was not by the person whose name the poster used, but GMP cited this as further evidence of violence by what they called ‘a minority out to provoke the police’. Such statements were usually accompanied by estimates of the cost of the police daily being present on the Lane in numbers considerably greater than the Protectors.

On the same day as the alleged flare, another curious incident took place. Barton Moss Lane, which is
clearly signed as a private road, is also a Public Footpath, but that Saturday a couple of officers were photographed removing the Public Footpath sign from the top of the lane. The Rights of Way officer at Stockport Council was contacted and said he knew nothing about this and that, as far as he was aware, the lane was still a footpath.

With most of the arrests made being for Obstruction of the Public Highway, this was a very important point. These charges would only stand if Barton Moss Lane was indeed a Public Highway. The courts, which had been taking an increasingly dim view of GMP tactics and which were regularly releasing campaigners on unconditional bail even if they had been arrested for breach of bail conditions, would have to decide.

LEGALLY DUBIOUS


As January 2014 came to an end there was still no ruling, but Greater Manchester Police may have started to sense which way the legal wind was blowing. Although there were still plenty of complaints of police violence, arrested campaigners were sometimes just led away rather than wrestled to the floor and handcuffed and on 30th January the police stayed in their vans and let the Protectors walk the lorries down unescorted. As usual the convoy took two hours to get to the Igas site.

Then on Wednesday 12th February,  Judge Khalid Qureshi, in Manchester Magistrates Court, ruled that the Lane was a Private Road and Public Footpath and not a Public Highway. By this time the number of people arrested was well over a hundred and the prospect was that most would now have their charges dropped. It looked like Greater Manchester Police had just arrested a hundred innocent people, and spent nearly a million pounds, policing a peaceful protest that could have been handled by a village bobby on his bike.

For two days after the ruling nothing happened. No convoy passed down the lane and no-one was arrested. Then the police returned with a violence seemingly fortified, and not mollified, by the collapse of their legal case. They started arresting the Protectors once more, hospitalising Vanda Shivett in the process.

Vanda had been pushed in the back by an officer, one of the many minor acts of provocation that now
occurred on a daily basis. Others included punches in the ribs when no-one was looking, threats to “see you later” and boasts about how much overtime pay the officers were receiving. Vanda instinctively replied with a coarse word and was immediate handcuffed and dragged away, her hands almost being pulled backwards over her head in the process. She was left on the ground twitching and apparently fitting.

An ambulance was called, but was not allowed down the lane for nearly half an hour. Supporters of the camp coming to the site after seeing the incident on Facebook  found uniformed officers stopping them at the top of Barton Moss Lane and claiming the area was a ‘crime scene’. Vanda, a mother of five, eventually made it to hospital where she discovered she was no longer under arrest and that, although she had not had a fit, the violence of her arrest had trapped a nerve.

TRESPASS ON A PUBLIC FOOTPATH


The increase in the level of aggression by the TAU was not the only surprise for the campaign. The police were now making arrests for the crime of Aggravated Trespass. This offence, from the notorious 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, has been widely used against environmental protesters in the past. However the bill clearly defined trespass as only being possible on land to which the public did not have access. As Judge Quereshi had clearly ruled Barton Moss Lane was a Public Footpath, this charge required the police to claim that the Igas lorries, or themselves, somehow had priority over pedestrians on the footpath, a feat of legal legerdemain that has no precedent.

So that is the current state of play at Barton Moss: the law seemingly on the side of the Protectors, the Law clearly siding with Igas, and the convoys still taking two hours to get down the Lane.

The number of people camping on Barton Moss is small, but they are only there because of the support from the local community. Greater Manchester Police meanwhile continue to act as if the campers are their personal enemies. Conspicuously absent during rallies and media visits, they often arrive just minutes later to carry out more seemingly random arrests. From the use of Aggravated Trespass on a Public Footpath, to the man arrested for drink driving whilst sober and on foot, they act seemingly independent of the law.

The very serious concern for the local campaigners is that violent protests will attract violent protesters. So far this has not happened, and the Protectors are still committed to peaceful civil disobedience. However this is despite, and not because of, the actions of Greater Manchester Police.