Three men who took part in what’s believed to be the longest single anti-fracking protest in the UK have been sent to prison.
The packed public gallery at Preston Crown Court listened in silence as the judge sentenced Richard Roberts and Simon Blevins to 16 months and Rich Loizou to 15 months.
Women began singing as the men were led away. Outside the court, anti-fracking campaigners, some in tears, said they were devastated by the sentences. DrillOrDrop report on reaction
A fourth man, Julian Brock, who also took part in the protest was given a 12 month prison sentence suspended for 18 months.
The four had climbed onto lorries delivering to Cuadrilla’s shale gas site in Lancashire in July 2017 and stayed there for a total of 99.5 hours.
The three who received jail sentences are thought to be the first people to be sent to prison for taking part in a UK anti-fracking protest. The barrister for one of them said it was the first time that the law on public nuisance had been used against environmental campaigners since the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932.
Passing sentences on Mr Blevins, Mr Roberts and Mr Loizou, his Honour Judge Altham said:
He said the three would serve half the sentence in custody and half on licence.
Judge Altham said the protest had caused cost and disruption to Cuadrilla. But added:
“Other victims were other members of the public who had nothing to do with Cuadrilla or fracking, who suffered significant inconvenience which must have been considered by these defendants as justifiable collateral damage.”
The judge acknowledged that fracking was a “matter of legitimate concern”. He said:
“These defendants did what they did from sincerely-held beliefs and this does mitigate the sentence.”
But he said the three had crossed the line of what was acceptable protest by persisting in their action for so long. He said:
“No cause can trump every consideration and everyone’s rights.”
Mr Loizou, 31, a teacher from Devon, Mr Blevins, 26, a soil scientist, from Sheffield, and Mr Roberts, a piano restorer from London, had denied the charge of public nuisance but had been found guilty after a seven-day trial ending on 22 August 2018.
Mr Brock, 47, from Torquay, had pleaded guilty to the same offence at an earlier hearing.
The court heard that the protest, known as lorry surfing, started at 8.06am on 25 July 2017 when Richard Roberts climbed on to the first lorry in the convoy on the A583 as it approached Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site. He was followed soon after by Rich Loizou, who mounted the last lorry in the line.
Prosecutor, Craig MacGregor, said the A583, the main road from Blackpool to Preston, was brought to a standstill in both directions.
At 3.18pm on the same day, Simon Blevins climbed on to the second vehicle in the convoy. Julian Brock climbed onto his vehicle in the early hours of the morning of 26 July 2017.
The men came down at different times, starting with Rich Loizou, at 5.10am on 27 July 2017. He had been on his lorry for 45 hours and 6 minutes. Simon Blevins came down at 4.45pm on 28 July after 73 hours and 27 minutes.
Richard Roberts came down at 8.13pm on 28 July, after 84 hours and 19 minutes. The final protester to come down from his vehicle was James Brock, on 29 July at 11.35am, after 76 hours.
The total duration of the protest was 99 hours and 31 minutes.
Mr MacGregor had told the court that bus services and private journeys were disrupted during the protest.
Live maggots had to be barrowed to the World of Water business on Preston New Road. One woman had described how they had to wait for buses for 45 minutes, before giving up. Two days later, she caught a bus but on the way home it dropped her off short of her usual destination and she had to walk an hour and a half to get home. She was sick when she got home and had to go to bed.
Lorry drivers were stuck in their cabs, unable to return home, he said, although this was disputed by barristers for the four protesters.
Mr MacGregor added that the protest had cost Lancashire Police £12,000 and Cuadrilla £50,000.
One of the lorry companies involved in the protest said it would not deliver to the site again.
The protest took part during a month of actions co-ordinated by the national group, Reclaim the Power.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, for Richard Roberts, said the court should take into account the motivation of the four men and the fact that this was a political protest.
Ms Brimelow said the four were protesting not just for themselves but for future generations and the future of the planet.
“It is very important to keep very firmly in mind the context which is peaceful protest. The court should tread very carefully when dealing with public protest.”
She had referred to a ruling by Lord Hoffmann, who said:
“It is a mark of a civilised society that it can accommodate protest.”
She disputed that the protest had caused damage and said disruption was predominantly on the first of the four days. The traffic delays were caused partly by other protesters in the road, she said.
Richard Brigden, the barrister for Rich Loizou, said his client held genuine views that were not extreme:
“It is a view that in other European countries would be supported by the government”.
A group of around 60 anti-fracking campaigners gathered outside the court for the start of the hearing yesterday. Supporters of the four men said hundreds of online messages had been received.
Reaction coming soon
Reports from hearing on 25 September 2018
Reporting from this hearing has been made possible by the donations of individual DrillOrDrop readers