Anti-fracking campaigners have said they will continue their fight against shale gas, despite the eviction of protesters from a camp on land near the Lancashire drill site.
In a dawn swoop on Tuesday, specialist evictions firm Able Enforcements from Bristol said it had removed a dozen squatters from the protest camp on private land near off Preston New Road near Little Plumpton, on Tuesday.
It said illegal trespass and fears of contamination of the land prompted a local business to call the firm to the site, after the protesters repeatedly refused requests to leave.
A team of more than 30 officers from Able Enforcements – bailiffs, security guards and dog handlers – joined with Specialist Group International, specialists in removing protesters from trees, to execute the eviction at daybreak.
It added that the action was undertaken, following consultation with Lancashire Police, without the need for a court order but instead using common law rights to remove trespassers from private land. Police were in attendance throughout the eviction.
But members of the protest community said a court order and notice of eviction should have been obtained and have engaged lawyers to look into the action.
They say personal belongings, solar panels and a wind-turbine have been lost or damaged in the raid at the New Hope Camp in woodland close to the Lytham Window Company on Preston New Road.
They added that people had to beg to rescue pet cats from their homes there before diggers moved in to demolish the camp.
The camp has been in place for around three years and was one of several set up in the area to support the protest against shale gas exploration company Cuadrilla’s fracking operations on farmland nearby.
Former Kirkham town councillor Miranda Cox who has supported the protesters since before the drilling operation came to Preston New Road in 2016 said: “The residents of the camp have been here three years. They are part of our community.
“I am completely unimpressed by the police facilitation and the actions of the bailiffs. No notice was given as far as I’m aware.
“Residents had to beg to rescue their cats before the diggers moved in.
“The homes on camp were designed to be dismantled but now they’ve been bulldozed in a wanton act of destruction.”
But the firm said its people had acted in a professional manner and were experienced in such evictions.
Steve Wood, operations director at Able Enforcements, said: “This was a challenging job and a complicated site – these squatters have been here for more than three years, were well entrenched and are experienced protesters.
“Fortunately, we’ve met most of these individuals before – we see the same people at jobs all over the country – so we knew what to expect in terms of aggression, abuse and violence.
“Our main priority was to act with speed and surprise, to prevent them locking themselves to structures or trees, or to call up reinforcements from nearby camps.
“We set strict guidelines for our personnel of how to treat the protesters, to avoid any false accusations that they’ve been mistreated in any way. Our expertise is in managing these situations quickly, securely and according to the law which we are employed to uphold.
“We understand that the local community here is against the fracking industry – that’s not our concern.
“There is a private landlord here who has suffered from the illegal activity of these squatters and it is our job to remove them.”
Mr Wood said the company is dealing with around 20 evictions of squatters, travellers and protesters from public and private sites each month, with clients across the UK including local authorities, private landowners and oil and gas firms.
Fracking is currently on hold in the UK after the Government announced a moratorium earlier this month following the spate of earth tremors from the Preston New Road site’s test fracking operations.
It said the stop will remain in place indefinitely unless the industry can show it can better mitigate the tremors fracking causes.
But shale gas firm Cuadrilla, which today declined to comment on the evictions, said its most recent gas flow tests were promising and it would be working to show fracking can be resumed safely in the future.
Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce said: “Since January 2017 we have received a numerous complaints from local businesses and residents operating or living in close proximity of the Preston New Road shale gas site in relation to ongoing protest action.
“Activists set up unauthorised camps both opposite the entrance of the shale gas site and at the junction of the A583 Preston New Road and Westby Road, Little Plumpton (including the placement of makeshift ‘on the verge toilet’ facilities) which we believed were not only a danger to road users but potentially posing a significant health and safety risk.
“This together with unsightly detritus, placards, posters, hedgerows filled with banners and ferris fencing bursting at the seams with fly posters, ribbons and ‘underwear’ has been blighting the lives of local residents.
"We have, for some considerable time, been urging land owners and authorities to deal with and remove all unauthorised and illegal A583 encampments.”
One of the environmental campaigners from the so-called Camp of New Hope calls himself Fargo.
He said some of the people living in the shelters and tents at the camp had been there for three years.
He said the camp was formed for environmentalists to be able to stay in the area to support the community campaign against the fracking industry.
He said while many of them were not from the area, they had been welcomed by many people living in the area.
He said: “The camp was established to help raise awareness and to be a point of resistance to the fracking industry which has huge financial backing and has had the support of the Conservative Government.
“We have known that fracking has caused problems for every community it has appeared in. For example in Oklahoma, we have seen for years that they cannot control the earth tremors it has caused.
“I have been in the campaign for years. I was at Barton Moss in 2013. We are like-minded people who want to support the local community. And they have been amazingly supportive of us.
“We could not have stayed here without support from local people. We have been reliant on them for food and clothing, everything.
“We have been here to support them, with lock-ons and sitting on trucks.
“They say we had been asked to leave by the landowner but that is not so.
“We did have a visit from someone claiming to be the landowner but he would not give us his name or contact details so we could confirm it.
“No-one has asked us to move and we have had no court papers served. They are claiming it is legal under common law, but we dispute that.
“It was a terrible shock this morning. The police were supporting them in numbers and there were only about five people sleeping in the camp when they came.
“People have belongings here and animals.
“We will not give up the fight. It is too important. Fracking divides communities.”
Fylde campaigner Nick Danby said they were very disappointed with Lancashire Police for helping the bailiffs.
He said: “We believe that the police have been flying a drone over the camp in recent weeks, even at night, using infra-red technology, to gather information on the number of people there and the layout to support this operation.
“We knew something might be going to happen. But the way it has been done is disgraceful. We have lawyers involved. We have done our best today to retrieve seven cats from the site, but we think they have damaged solar panels which are worth thousands and a wind turbine too.
“The people living there have had a cordial relationship with residents and businesses in the area and no notice to leave the site had been given.
“For Lancashire Police to have facilitated this operation in this way is a disgrace.”
A spokesman for Lancashire Police said: “We can confirm we’ve used the drone to monitor the site and safety of the inhabitants.
“Our role today has been to prevent a breach of the peace.
“Any questions around a court order or notice given to the campers is a matter for the landowner.”
Able Enforcements said that it was possible to use common law to evict people trespassing on private land and that the campaigners were given plenty of time to gather belongings. They also said they helped in retrieving the pet cats from the site.