Furious business chiefs today demanded police make arrests after anti-fracking protesters stormed their way into a building and sparked a three-hour stand-off.
A group of around 15 campaigners from the Reclaim the Power camp, based just outside Blackpool, barged into the Chamber of Commerce building on Amy Johnson Way, South Shore, at around noon yesterday.
The first floor of the building is used by energy firm Cuadrilla but the group only gained access to the ground floor, which is used as the Fylde coast base for the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce.
But there was strong criticism of the protesters’ “illegal” occupancy of the building, which saw close to 100 members of the camp, based on farmland off Preston New Road, turn up to show their support.
And today business leaders are calling for action after police, who were present but chose not to interfere in the protest, announced an investigation had been launched and arrests were likely.
Hugh Evans (pictured), policy director of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, was inside the building when the protesters pushed their way in. He said: “A couple of very well dressed, very presentable business people – male and female – tapped on the window as the door was locked down by then.
“They said they wanted to make an appointment about Chamber membership. We got rid of them but they came back again and we opened the outer door.
“They must have given a signal because about 12 of them appeared from the side of the building and pushed their way into the porch.
“Me and my colleague went out and they forced their way into the building.”
Mr Evans said police on the scene had told him they were not making arrests because they “didn’t want to escalate the situation”.
He added: “I was angry. They were occupying illegally and preventing us from working. It was a criminal offence and we want action taken.”
But one of the protesters, Tim Young , a student from the South West, denied claims the protesters had behaved aggressively.
Speaking to The Gazette from inside the building, he said: “This is a non-violent occupation. The door wasn’t locked – we just strolled in.
“We ensured members of staff present could leave the building and were very careful not to damage anything.”
He said the group had come from all over the UK to take part in the occupation.
“We would like to be upstairs where Cuadrilla’s office is so we are blockading it,” he added.
“Businesses say we are damaging tourism but we have brought people into the area – that’s the definition of tourism. I am willing to put myself at risk of arrest but I think it would be a completely illegitimate attempt.”
The demonstration was part of a national ‘day of action’ that saw protesters target the Department for Food and Rural Affairs headquarters in London, Swansea University and PPS, the Manchester-based public relations firm that represents Cuadrilla.
Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, said: “The protesters claimed to have an appointment and charged past our staff, cutting one of their hands. They proceeded to bash down the inner door and take illegal occupancy of the chamber premises.
“It was forced entry and we believe it was a totally irresponsible act. I don’t think any law-abiding person would condone their actions.”
Police were present as protesters took over the car park, singing and chanting, while others wrapped a yellow ribbon around the building.
The protesters left of their own free will, at around 3.30pm, having climbed out of the windows before mingling in with the crowd.
Police moved in to secure the building and crime scene investigators arrived.
Tina Rothery, of Residents Action on Fylde Fracking, said: “The North and West Chamber Of Commerce carries a great deal of weight and influence and should be more responsible in their actions which are currently misleading local businesses. They are not being made aware of the damage the shale gas industry will do to local tourism, agriculture and all the other businesses that depend on them.”
A spokesman for the North West Energy Task Force, an alliance of local business who support the potential economic benefits of fracking, said protests were “undemocratic”.
They also accused the group of “failing” after it succeeded only in gaining access to the ground floor of the building.
Cuadrilla would not comment on how many staff are based at its Blackpool office, though none were thought to have been present yesterday.
A spokesman said: “Cuadrilla has consistently made clear that we support the right to peaceful protest, but taking the law into your own hands – through trespass or direct action – is anti-democratic and harmful to local farmers, business and other job creators during an important time in Blackpool’s farming and business calendar.”
A Lancashire Police spokesman said: “This is being treated as an offence of aggravated trespass and efforts are being made to identify those people who illegally entered the building. No arrests have been made at this stage.”
“Lancashire Constabulary will always endeavour to facilitate lawful and peaceful protest but where the law is broken we will take appropriate action.”