Since November 26th last year, officers from Greater Manchester Police (GMP) have made scores of arrests of anti-fracking campaigners at the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp, citing `obstruction of the highway' as they have walked slowly down Barton Moss Road to delay delivery lorries to the iGas exploratory drilling site.
Yesterday, at Manchester Magistrates Court, District Judge Qureshi agreed with the campaigners' solicitor Simon Pook, of Robert Lizar Solicitors, that Barton Moss Road was indeed a public footpath, not a highway – a point agreed by GMP's own QC – and, by implication, voiding all charges for people `obstructing the highway'.
The legal test is that people must be able to `pass and re-pass' while walking down the footpath, or to walk up and down without obstruction. Despite the campaigners slow walking vehicles down Barton Moss Road, public walkers have never been obstructed.
Once this point had been agreed at the Court, the GMP QC changed tack and tried to argue that the police had not been allowed to `pass and re-pass' – although videos submitted by Simon Pook, which would have shown this hardly to be the case, had not been viewed by the court, so the hearing was re-scheduled for 26th February. It is expected that all the GMP cases with regard to campaigners `obstructing the highway' will collapse.
Indeed, the videos clearly show that the police officers present at Barton Moss Road have been forming a kettle during the walks, and a kettle at the side of the road as the lorries are driving into the site. Everyone present has generally been pushed in front of the police lines on Barton Moss Road, be they anti-fracking campaigners or, indeed, journalists and photographers, the Salford Star included.
What this Court ruling means in practice is that, as long as the public can walk along Barton Moss Road, all the lock-ons in the road and the slow walks have been perfectly legal, and, if anything, the arrests have been unlawful.
"The Crown has accepted our position that obstruction of the highway with regard to a vehicle cannot take place on a public road" says Simon Pook, who is representing the majority of those arrested at Barton Moss
"To arrive at that point the Greater Manchester Police have had to instruct a leading QC to give them the advice - is this the most appropriate way to spend money from the public purse?" he asks "It reinforces that the protectors at Barton Moss have been acting a in a lawful capacity all along."
Last week, Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable, Sir Peter Fahy expressed his `exasperation' at the £660,000 cost so far of policing the Barton Moss actions – despite Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett expressing concerns about the huge amount of police officers, evidence gatherers and Tactical Aid Unit vans policing an average of around twenty campaigners…
"It's very evident just walking in here today that there's a huge level of policing for something totally non-violent" she told the Salford Star "Why are there so many police here? You really have to ask that question." (see here)
Now, with GMP seemingly, not only over-policing the Barton Moss actions, but also arresting people on charges which don't look like they will stand up in court, the pressure is on the Chief Constable to explain why the public is expected to bear the costs, estimated by the police to rise to around £1million.
See also previous Salford Star interview with Simon Pook on the policing of Barton Moss – click here
Update: 13th February 7:30pm
Barton Moss Protectors claim amazing victory as iGas lorries turned away from site - click here