Opponents of Cuadrilla’s shale gas site near Blackpool say their right to protest has been “repeatedly trampled on” by Lancashire Police.

In a letter to the force’s incoming chief constable, Andy Rhodes, they called for a meeting on policing of protests at the site at Preston New Road.

The letter, signed by more than 300 people, was handed-in at Kirkham Police Station this afternoon. The signatories accused the police of “increasingly aggressive tactics and lack of respect for human rights”.

Lancs police letter

It said:

“The timing of an increasing zero-tolerance attitude to protests, just as the fracking industry and its supporters have called for you to ‘crack down on protesters’, has further damaged confidence and trust that the operation at Preston New Road is impartial and proportionate.”

“Lancashire Police has a legal duty to protect the right to freedom of assembly and a responsibility to provide greater transparency and genuine accountability for your operation and the conduct of officers who are part of it.”

Barbara Richardson, of Roseacre Awareness Group, was among about 100 people from across Lancashire who gathered outside the police station. She told the Blackpool Gazette the police presence at Preston New Road was “heavy-handed” and was facilitating Cuadrilla’s activities. She said of the policing:

“It’s not giving us the opportunity to protest in the peaceful way that we want to.”

She said policing costs, estimated at an extra £450,000 a month, were “over-the-top” because the presence was disproportionate.

“On the majority of days, there’s a few people there, normal residents like myself who just want to protest and there’s been three or four policemen to one person. That’s disproportionate.”

She added that lock-on protests had taken place off the carriageway and it was unfair to blame protesters for any traffic problems.

The letter, is supported by the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), a national human rights organisation that has monitored the policing of anti-fracking protests since 2014.

It said it had been increasingly alarmed by Lancashire Police’s failure to learn from previous opposition to fracking in other parts of the country.

Netpol said it was particularly concerned about what it called “often extremely aggressive behaviour by officers”, arbitrary decisions about arrests and the way protesters were “pushed into the path of busy traffic with a lack of care about their safety”.

Kevin Blowe, the coordinator for Netpol, said:

“Concerns have been raised about the financial costs of policing the protests at Preston New Road but little thought appears to have been given to the legacy costs of this confrontational style of policing or the long-term impact it is having on relations between Lancashire Police and local people.”

“In the interests of transparency and accountability, we urge the new Chief Constable to agree to the request to participate and answer questions in an open public meeting and urge the Police & Crime Commissioner, Clive Grunshaw, to also attend and take part.”

At times tensions rose on both sides during today’s gathering. Supt Richard Robertshaw, of Lancashire Police, said:

Supt Robert Robertshaw“What today has shown is the very difficult job that the officers who are on the front line of the policing operation at Preston New Road have to deal with on a daily basis.

“Our intention is to facilitate peaceful protest We want people to be able to exercise their democratic rights. However that that needs to be balanced against by the right of Cuadrilla to develop the site in Preston New Road.”

“We don’t have a position on whether fracking is a good thing or a bad thing. We are very much in the middle trying to strike a balance between the protesting side of the argument and the development of the site.

“There are a vast amount of protesters who go about protesting in a peaceful and appropriate way and there are also others who are very aggressive. They are very much in the face of officers and acting in what I would describe as quite a threatening and aggressive way towards officers.

“What you will also see today is the professionalism of officers working on the operation. They know they’ve got a job to do. They know there are strong feelings. But they will also try to use the absolute minimum amount of force.”