Sheffield protester's jail term deepens anti-fracking campaign's resolve: '˜His actions will only add fuel to our fire'

The imprisonment of a Sheffield man who took part in an anti-fracking protest has starkly illustrated the depth of feeling against the controversial practice in the city - proving that opponents are prepared to risk jail for their beliefs.

Wednesday, 3rd October 2018, 2:13 pm
An anti-fracking sign in Marsh Lane.

More than 100 people gathered outside the Town Hall in support of Simon Roscoe Blevins, a 26-year-old soil scientist from Pitsmoor who is among the first in the UK to be put behind bars for taking direct action against drilling for shale gas, a process some believe is harmful to the planet.

Blevins was locked up for 16 months on a charge of public nuisance. No-one has been sent to prison for staging an environmental protest in the UK since the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932, which marked the beginning of the right-to-roam movement. Activists have previously been given jail sentences for charges related to their protests, like breaking injunctions and contempt of court.

Blevins and other protesters climbed on top of lorries delivering drilling equipment for fracking in Blackpool. Picture: Anna Vickerstaff

He was found to have breached the law by climbing on top of a lorry - known as 'truck surfing' - after a convoy delivering drilling equipment to a fracking site at Preston New Road in Blackpool was brought to a halt by other protesters. Along with three other men, Blevins - who spent just over 73 hours on his truck - stopped lorries moving for four days last July, sustaining themselves with food and water thrown to them by fellow campaigners.

The site has been a focal point for protests since the government overturned a decision by Lancashire County Council and gave energy firm Cuadrilla permission to extract shale gas from two wells. More than 300 have been arrested there since Cuadrilla started building a drilling pad in January.

However, Sheffield is not immune to the prospect of fracking, which has been denounced by the ruling Labour council as 'dirty, dangerous and reckless' but looks set to take place just miles from the city centre. A recent planning inquiry ruled in favour of petrochemical giant Ineos, which wants to carry out testing on farmland at Marsh Lane, Eckington. The same company also has consent for a test well at Harthill and is trying again to launch a similar development at Woodsetts.

In a statement issued following the sentencing at Preston Crown Court, Blevins claimed Cuadrilla's project in Blackpool was 'the thin end of the wedge'.

Simon Roscoe Blevins. Picture: Frack Free Four

"Another company is already exploring to start fracking just outside my home in Sheffield," said Blevins, who specialises in toxicity issues in urban areas. 'If we let this industry take off then its toxic legacy in soil and water will affect the future of everyone in this country. I took action in part to protect my sister's unborn child. It hurts that as a result of this sentence, I will now miss that baby's birth.'

He was joined outside court by friends, family and supporters. His mother, Rosalind Blevins, said she was 'proud' of her son 'for standing up to stop catastrophic climate change'.

She added: "He wasn't up there for himself, he was there for everyone. It's not just climate change like a change in the weather."

Two other men - Richard Loizou, 31, and Richard Roberts, 36 - were sentenced to 16 and 15 months respectively. A fourth, Julian Brock, 47, received a suspended sentence of 18 months.

Friends of the jailed anti-fracking protestor Simon Roscoe Blevins gather in a show of solidarity outside Sheffield Town Hall. Picture: Frack Free South Yorkshire

The judge, Robert Altham, said he thought Blevins, Loizou and Roberts posed a risk of reoffending and that each was 'motivated by an unswerving confidence that they are right'.

'Even at their trial they felt justified by their actions," he concluded. "Given the disruption caused in this case, only immediate custody can achieve sufficient punishment.'

The trio saw the public as 'necessary and justified collateral damage', he ruled, despite their serious concern for the natural world.

Christina Whalley, of campaigning group Sheffield Against Fracking, said she was 'deeply saddened' by the jail terms.

'Simon, or Roscoe as he is known to most of us, is a wonderful caring and peaceful human being," she said. "His incarceration is a great loss to our environmental movement in Sheffield, and the immediate surrounding areas of Marsh Lane, Harthill and Woodsetts, who are all now living with the fear of approved or potential new applications for fracking test drilling in their villages.'

A crowdfunding campaign with a target of £23,000 has been launched to challenge the jail sentences and there are now calls for a judicial review.

Blevins is a keen dancer and runner, who completed this year's Sheffield Half Marathon wearing a hat in the shape of a fracking rig.

Outside Sheffield Town Hall last Thursday, people lit candles, wrote letters and held a three-minute silence. His partner, artist Sarah Jane Palmer, was present while Natalie Bennett, the former Green Party leader, and Jenny Gerrans, of Frack Free South Yorkshire, gave speeches.

"Roscoe's partner, friends and colleagues love him dearly, and we wanted to connect with each other in person, in our city," said Jenny. "We are all determined to raise more awareness about our need for a frack-free future with clean drinking water, thriving ecosystems and healthy, edible crops. We need to tackle climate change by investing in renewable energy, not fossil fuels. Roscoe and his fellow inmates will be proud of us for continuing to raise awareness while they can't. We miss him already but his actions will only add fuel to our fire."

Natalie pointed out that the Kinder trespass led to 'significant change and democratisation of our countryside'. 

"I've no doubt the injustice of these sentences will further galvanise the anti-fracking and pro-democracy movements around England," she predicted. The Global Frackdown Festival is in Barkers Pool, Sheffield, on October 13.

Peaceful protests are already happening at Marsh Lane, but David Kesteven, chair of Eckington Against Fracking and head gardener at Renishaw Hall, has said he wants to build a community 'army' to take on Ineos when the firm arrives. "If we turn up with a thousand people, we stop them," he said.

Ineos Upstream director Tom Pickering said: 'Anti-shale activists have spent years spreading myths, lies and fear. At Marsh Lane, Ineos Shale has permission to drill a single small well, just 10cm across, in order to obtain rock samples from underground. Hundreds of wells like this have been safely drilled at sites around the UK, including a previous site at Marsh Lane. There is no fracking involved."