Last summer saw the quiet Sussex village of Balcombe play host to dramatic scenes as protesters, and then the police, gathered in the normally isolated village.
Fracking, the controversial method of extracting of crude oil, was brought high profile figures including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas and Natalie Hynde to the village.
The last two were arrested as signs proclaiming “Frack Free Sussex” were held high in the air by protesters.
But a Freedom of Information (FoI) request has revealed that nearly half of those arrested have had the charges against them dropped, leading people to wonder if police were too quick to shackle protesters with handcuffs.
Sussex Police told The Argus 126 people were arrested for “protest-related activities outside the Cuadrilla Site in Balcombe” during the campaigning.
Of these 90 people were charged with 114 offences – 36 had the case against them dropped without charge. Of those who were charged, 21 had their cases discontinued by police and a further 22 had the case against them dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.
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So 48% of the total number of people initially charged – or 43 people – have had the case against them dropped.
This was largely due to there being a lack of evidence to support the charges, although in some cases the CPS felt it was not in the public interest to continue with a prosecution.
But many of the protesters who were taken to court have been cleared.
Among the 12 people already found not guilty are Paul Deacon, 50, formerly of Selden Lane, Worthing; Samantha Duncan, 30, of Beaconsfield Villas, Brighton; Ian Freeston, 52, of Phoenix Place, Lewes; Ezra Lynch, 31, of Phoenix Place, Lewes; Mark Mansbridge, 51, of Paddock Road, Lewes; Richard Millar, 30, of Upper Gloucester Road, Brighton; Michael Atkins, 37, of Westbury; Frances Crack, 31, of Cardiff; Justin Preese, 44, of Pontypridd and Nancy Walker, 25, of London, who were all cleared of obstructing the highway in January.
The case against Miranda Tarr, 41, whose address was not provided for legal reasons, was dismissed in court last year. She was accused of wilfully obstructing the highway.
Nichola Sanger, 44, of Auckland Road East, Southsea, Hampshire, appeared in court alongside Hynde and was cleared of besetting the site by blocking its entrance.
Hynde, 31, of Paynton Road, St Leonards, was convicted of besetting a drilling site and given a concurrent 12- month conditional discharge and ordered to pay costs of £400 and a £15 victim surcharge.
Simon ‘Sitting Bull’ Medhurst, 55, of High Street, Hastings, was convicted of the same offence and fined £200, ordered to pay costs of £200 and a victim surcharge cost of £20.
Robert Basto, 65, of Blackborough Road, Reigate, was convicted of obstructing the highway and acquitted of obstructing a policeman.
Others, including Lucas who is accused of breaching a police order on public assemblies and wilful obstruction of the highway, are set to appear in court later this year – Lucas’ next appearance is on March 24.
ASussex Police spokesman said: “The arrests carried out during the Balcombe protest were of people suspected of committing a criminal offence.
“Not everyone arrested was charged, but where they were, officers and on occasions, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), felt there was justification.
“Alternative disposal methods, such as a caution, were used on a number of occasions.
“Only one charge was authorised by the CPS, the remainder were authorised by a custody officer, independent of the investigation team, following an evidential review by a detective sergeant.
“Where the police charge an individual, the CPS will reviewthe suitability of the charge and ensure that there is a realistic prospect of conviction and that it is in the public interest to proceed.
“The ability to review continues through the life of a case and the CPS will take account of developments as these cases progress through the courts.”
A Sussex Police officer who worked extra hours during the protests in Balcombe last year spoke to The Argus yesterday.
The officer, who did not want to be named, said: “You cannot quantify the offences that were prevented during the operation.
“Had we not been there what could have happened?
“And also it is important to realise police were there for traffic management and public safety as much as prosecuting protesters.”
Vanessa Vine, of Frack Free Sussex, deemed the policing at Balcombe “farcical”.
She said: “With so many charges quietly dropped and with judges and barristers asking incredulously why on earth others have even been taken as far as the courtroom, the policing of the Balcombe protests have become ever more farcical and ever more suspicious.
“Hopefully the taxpayers of Sussex and beyond are now questioning why their money has gone on such blatantly political policing of a peaceful protest.”
She added: “Something is very, very wrong here.”
In a letter released following a FoI request the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said most cases “were charged by the police without advice from CPS”.
It continued: “All cases were then considered according to the twin evidence and public interest tests.
“Cases were discontinued primarily on evidential grounds, ie there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
“A small number were discontinued on public interest grounds.”
They confirmed charges which were discontinued included 15 under “obstructing a police constable” and eight under “obstruction of the highway”.
Three charges were dropped under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992, while others were dismissed under the Road Traffic Ace, Public Order Act and Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Fracking will now not be carried out in Balcombe.
Friends of the Earth’s South East Campaigner Brenda Pollack said: “While residents will undoubtedly be relieved that Cuadrilla has ruled out fracking at its Balcombe site, the community still faces the prospect of significant industrial activity on its doorstep.
“Local people will want more information about Cuadrilla’s plans and the potential impacts on their community and environment.
“With mounting evidence of the threat climate change poses to our environment and economy, we should be developing clean energy solutions, not more dirty fossil fuels.”
- Mutual aid costs – £1.662 million
- Accommodation, subsistence and vehicle costs – £259,517
- Supploes and services – £43,507
- Ordinary officer overtime – £335,519
- Rest day working – £830,137
- Staff and divisional overtime – £209,139
- Normal police salaries – £621,860