In November 2013, the energy company IGas, specialists in onshore oil and gas extraction, began exploratory drilling on greenbelt land at Barton Moss, on the outskirts of Salford, Greater Manchester. Their aim was to explore for coal bed methane and shale gas and the possibility of the future extraction of the latter, through the process of hydraulic fracturing - or ‘fracking’. This led local residents, along with activists from around the country, to establish a protest camp at the site. The protests triggered a large-scale policing operation by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) - reportedly costing in excess of £1.6m - which led to over 200 arrests and numerous official complaints about the conduct of police officers.
A team of researchers from Liverpool John Moores University and the University of York made a series of visits to the protest camp to engage in fieldwork and undertake interviews with camp residents and those taking part in direct action. This work has been ongoing since 2013, and the interim findings from this case study into the policing at Barton Moss were published in February 2016, in a public report entitled Keep Moving!: Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp November 2013 – April 2014.
This report documents concerns about the nature, function and proportionality of the policing operation at the camp and the way that policing methods were deployed in accordance with obligations to facilitate peaceful protest underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights. The authors’ analysis is situated within a contextual framework which argues that the experiences of those at the camp – those who were being policed at Barton Moss – are central to unlocking what happened during the protest.
The report highlights the various procedures adopted that had the effect of curtailing the right to protest, and seeks to substantiate unacknowledged claims that the policing operation was violent, incongruous to the size and peaceful nature of the protest, and carried out with impunity.
Despite claims by police that they were “stuck in the middle” at Barton Moss, the report explains that violent behaviour and harassment towards protesters were central features of the policing operation. In addition, the report found that several women who were involved at Barton Moss reported sexualised violence by GMP officers which had a direct effect on how camp residents and supporters engaged with the protest, as reported recently by The Guardian and BBC 5Live.
The report also sets out the criminal justice response to those who were arrested at Barton Moss. At the time of publication, the report was able to demonstrate that two thirds (66 per cent) of arrested protesters whose cases had concluded had had their cases dropped, dismissed or been found not guilty by the courts. This raises significant questions about the policing at Barton Moss and specifically the way that arrest and bail powers were used by GMP. Ultimately the report raises serious questions about the nature of democratic accountability and policing in England and Wales.