Former chief constable tells court that Balcombe anti-fracking protests were “accelerating”

18th March 2014

The former Chief Constable of Sussex went into the witness box this morning to defend a notice he signed that required people at the Balcombe anti-fracking demonstrations to use a designated protest area.

Martin Richards, who retired a week ago from Sussex Police, was giving evidence at the trial of poet Simon Welsh, the first Balcombe resident to be arrested at the protests. Mr Welsh, 34, of High Street, Balcombe, denies that he failed to comply with the notice on September 10th last year.

Brighton Magistrates Court heard how the notice was issued under Section 14 of the Public Order Act on the day Mr Welsh was arrested. It required demonstrators to use a 30 meter area of grass verge opposite the site at Lower Stumble where Cuadrilla was drilling for oil. The case centres on the reasons which the then Chief Constable used to justify the issue of the notice.

Mr Richards said he was briefed about the protests on September 9th by Superintendent Jane Derrick, the silver commander of Operation Mansell, the policing operation at Balcombe. He said the briefing contained what he called “restricted intelligence” relating to the current and planned activity of protesters. “It painted a vivid picture of an acceleration of the protest action”, he said.

Mr Richards said the protest tactics included slow marching in front of delivery lorries arriving and leaving Cuadrilla’s site, lock-ons at the site gate and protesters trying to climb onto moving lorries. He said the briefing included evidence that some of the contractors had been threatened verbally or followed elsewhere in the county, which they found to be intimidating.

He said the purpose of the briefing was to allow him to consider whether a Section 14 notice was appropriate. In making his decision, he said he considered the safety of road users and the people who had set up a protest camp along the London Road, a 60 mph B-road.

Mr Richards said there had also been reports that local residents had been inconvenienced. He said a mother trying to visit a sick child at school had made a formal complaint to Sussex Police. He also considered the rights to peaceful protest and the rights of Cuadrilla to carry out its lawful business.

“I had a reasonable belief that public assembly may result in serious disruption for the lives of the community”, he said.

Before Mr Richards gave evidence, the court saw a three-and-a-half minute video filmed at the scene on September 10th. It showed Chief Inspector Ross using a loud hailer to tell protesters about the notice. Jonathan Edwards, prosecuting, described how a “vociferous crowd” tried to drown out her words.

Mr Edwards said Mr Welsh was part of the crowd. He was spoken to by two police officers but he refused to listen or move to the designated protest area and was therefore arrested. Mr Welsh said no comment at his police interview but made a statement in the form of poem.

The case continues this afternoon.

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