18th March 2014
The former chief constable of Sussex explained this afternoon that he imposed restrictions on anti-fracking protesters at Balcombe because he believed the demonstrations would cause serious disruption to the life of the local community.
Martin Richards, who retired from the police a week ago, was giving evidence in the case of poet Simon Welsh, the first Balcombe resident arrested at the protests. Mr Welsh denies failing to comply with a police notice under Section 14 of the Public Order Act on September 10th last year.
Brighton Magistrates Court heard how the then Chief Constable signed a notice on September 9th which limited demonstrations against Cuadrilla’s oil-exploration site to a designated protest area of 30 meters of grass verge opposite. The order came into effect the next day and lasted until September 28th.
Mr Richards spent more than three hours in the witness box this afternoon answering questions about his reasons for issuing the notice. He said the decision was based largely on a written and oral briefing from Superintendent Jane Derrick, the silver commander of the policing operation at Balcombe. The briefing included the operation’s tactical plan and an intelligence document, parts of which were redacted before they were provided to the court.
The former Chief Constable said the notice was designed to ensure the safety of people who had joined the protest camp on the verges, as well as other road users. It took account of the freedom of expression and assembly of the protesters, as well as the rights of Cuadrilla and the needs of the local community.
But he also explained that police intelligence suggested that the protest action was escalating. He said there was evidence that a day of action had been planned for September 11th. He also said there had been 95 arrests and he cited examples of protesters cutting a delivery lorry’s brake linings, intimidating site staff, locking themselves to the site gate and a tanker, climbing a tripod in the middle of the road and walking slowly in front of lorries. He talked about flash mobs of 500 people closing the road and causing disruption.
Under cross-examination by defence barrister, Tom Wainwright, Mr Richards conceded that the brake linings incident happened at the start of the protests (which began on July 25th). He also accepted that the Section 14 notice would not prevent lorries being slowed down by protesters, because that would need a notice under a different part of the Public Order Act. He further accepted that people had been walking in the road as much at the start of the protest as at the time of the notice.
Mr Wainwright said there were just three cases connected to allegations of intimidation and two of them had been discontinued before they reached court. The third person was found not guilty. When asked if this had been drawn to his attention, Mr Richards said “No”.
Mr Wainwright suggested to the former Chief Constable that there was not an escalation, but rather a collection of isolated incidents by individuals. Mr Richards replied “I was given the impression of escalation and considerable risk.”
Mr Wainwright argued that the notice was disproportionate and punished those who had done nothing wrong. The designated protest area could accommodate just 280 people. “This was limiting the number of people who could protest,” Mr Wainwright said.
Mr Richards said the Section 14 notice looked forward. “There was real concern that the mood was in the process of changing. There was a real risk of intimidation, injury and danger to life.”
Mr Wainwright put it to Mr Richards that Cuadrilla had to leave Balcombe by September 28th and the company was worried it would not finish the work on time. “Is this what the Section 14 order was there for?”, he asked. Mr Richards said he had no knowledge of correspondence between the police and Cuadrilla about the Section 14 notice.
Mr Wainwright also suggested that September 10th was a significant date because this was when West Sussex County Council planned to evict the roadside camp. Mr Richards said he did not remember making the link between the two events but he said he expected the police would have had conversations with the council.
Also during the cross-examination, Mr Richards denied the notice had been motivated by reducing the cost of the policing operation. He said “Blank cheques are not the way things are done these days. But our primate concern was protection of life and we do not put a cost on that.”
Mr Wainwright asked Mr Richards why he had not issued a notice for just September 11th. Mr Richards said he expected the notice would be reviewed daily and could be rescinded without his involvement. He described September 10th as a “dry run for all parties”. Mr Richards said: “I would expect officers to use their discretion”. “So you considered it to be proportionate?”, Wainwright asked. “Yes”, said Mr Richards.
The case continues tomorrow (March 20th)