Chapter 23. The Spirit Of Business. My Extraordinary Life.
Please come and help us Dad.
In the years between the birth of Sean in 2012 and the arrival of Selene in 2018, a new challenge arose. We were back in the UK, settling our family into the British way of life, and directing the jewellery business onto a new course of growth, when a significant threat arose.
That threat was the proposed drilling of a fracking well.
Fracking is the extraction of methane gas from underground using a process of fracturing the ground and the rock strata with pressurised liquid – hence the term ‘fracking’. The effects are highly toxic as much of the methane escapes into the air and the soil, as well as the chemicals in the liquid used to erode the rock. They also end up in the water supply. Methane is known as ‘the silent killer’ and is lethal to nearly all life forms.
In 2012 the neighbouring farmer to Plas Yolyn had signed a contract with Dart Energy to permit them to test drill for a coalbed methane operation, drilling down into the old coal mine, which lies underneath the land where our jewellery factory is located. The proposed site was literally just over the hedge from us about 300 metres away.
The film ‘Voices From The Gasfields’ by Ian R Crane on Youtube gives some idea of the dreadful future we would soon have been faced with, if this proposed drill were to go ahead. If you are interested to understand what fracking truly entails for the people living and working around it, watch that documentary. It is heartbreaking.
Thanks to the information being put out by Ian R Crane I was well informed as to how dangerous this would be to the people living nearby (including the farmer himself, his family and his animals). Unfortunately the farmer didn’t ask me first before signing up, but not long after he’d signed, he began to get wind of the dangers he would be facing. The problem was how was he going to get out of what he had signed up to.
The local MP Owen Paterson was at that moment all gung-ho about fracking and was actually the Minister for the Environment at DEFRA so there was no chance of him giving us any political support. In former days he had been a great ally for the Eurosceptic/Brexit cause and still is, but overnight we became political enemies over the issue of fracking. I produced leaflets, and a Youtube video under the heading ‘Let’s Talk About Fracking’, attacking him and we distributed these in the local vicinity, also writing in the local paper. Paterson had said in a private conversation that the people in the village who might be affected were ‘not real people’. At that moment he appeared to be in the control of the corporations.
I also started writing about the ‘Dudleston’ proposed fracking site on Tap News, and as a result was soon visited by two anti-fracking activists, one known as ‘Yellowbelly’, who had been occupying proposed fracking sites further north and was looking for a new location to campaign.
When they suggested that they occupy the proposed drilling site in Dudleston to block the path of Dart Energy, I at once agreed and said that we would assist them as much as we could by delivering water and other supplies such as pallets and anything else they needed to build a defensive structure. They went to see the farmer, but he said that as he was contractually bound to cooperate with Dart Energy he could not take any part in anti-fracking campaigning. Despite his unwillingness to be involved, the activists bravely crossed the hedge onto his land parking their vehicles at the jewellery factory and set up camp on the proposed drilling site on the farmer’s field.
Dart Energy were not too bothered at first. Articles were appearing regularly in The Shropshire Star announcing that the project was going ahead and would be the first fracking site in the West Midlands area, with many more to follow. Their share price was rising, and investors were rushing to cash in on the anticipated fracking boom. It seemed inevitable that the power of the corporations, the government and the media would be too much for a handful of impoverished occupiers and their tents, which could be cleared off the site by a dozen police officers. Local Police called by regularly to observe the camp, which was overflown by Police helicopters on a daily basis. The campers were categorised as ‘domestic extremists’ under anti-terror laws, which was ridiculous. They were a peaceable group of demonstrators who believed passionately in their cause, and merely wanted the land, water and air to be saved from the proposed abomination.
There were a few academic reports showing the dangers of fracking to the people living and working near frack sites, but these were all being suppressed at the time so no one heard of their conclusions. It would be many years later before the general population at large understood the implications of fracking. Most thought it would just mean cheaper gas bills. Not until 2020 are we now hopefully safe as PM Boris Johnson has finally declared a moratorium on fracking in England. This is six years later than the events I am describing, when the big companies were preparing to drill across their chosen sacrifice zones before people awoke and realised the implications of what was being proposed. The drilling companies were given carte blanche and had no legal liability to pay for the damage they would do.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of the cause, the activists were totally dedicated to the task of stopping Dart Energy, and they stood their ground hoping that somehow events could be turned around. I found myself praying to my late father to bring us help. It seemed that when I did this, coincidences started to happen, and the spirits of goodness started to bring us hope.
The chances of support from David Cameron’s government were entirely hopeless as the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was not only pro-fracking but actively promoting the industry offering £1 million bribes to communities that agreed to be fracked.
There was, however, a chance that the Shropshire Council could be persuaded to oppose the project. Fracking had to be approved by the local council, and until the approval was secured, Dart could not begin drilling. The Shropshire Council had a Conservative majority but as I knew the Leader of the Council personally, Keith Barrow, I went to see him. Before he became Leader of the Shropshire Council, we had tried together unsuccessfully to campaign for Ken Clarke to be deselected in his Rushcliffe Constituency.
Keith said that he knew nothing about fracking, but if I would send him the information about it, he promised to look at it and see what he made of it. He would not necessarily follow the line being taken by Owen Paterson and the government although he worked closely with Owen Paterson on many other issues. Keith read the material and within a day or two decided that he did not want fracking taking place in Shropshire. It was our first breakthrough.
Another anti-fracking campaigner called Chris Hesketh lived in the same village of Dudleston. He also contacted Keith and gave him a detailed assessment of the threat posed by Dart Energy, and the wheels began to turn quietly against them within the corridors of Shropshire Council as the councillors began to take it all on board. That said, the media and the government maintained their full-on support for fracking both in the country and the county.
The articles in The Shropshire Star would always write the story from the viewpoint of Dart Energy first, then give a reply from Chris Hesketh and his Dudleston anti-fracking group called Frack Free Dudleston. Each time it would also put a photograph of Yellowbelly and his campers, so that the people in the area were well aware there was active opposition on the ground. Chris Hesketh organised a meeting in the Dudleston village hall which drew an audience of two hundred, and he put out regular bulletins on his website.
The only place that the charge of the frackers could actually be halted, unless the farmer could somehow get out of his contract, it seemed, was at the Council, where the crucial vote was to be held in the Planning Sub-committee of the Council. If that went against Dart Energy, they would then be forced to go to appeal, which would take some months, and would buy time.
Keith Barrow thought he had a majority of the Planning Sub-Committee on the anti-fracking side but he wasn’t sure. Being a character of strong feelings who tended to resist increased spending, he occasionally crossed swords with other Councillors and couldn’t be sure of his chances of winning the vote. Before the sub-committee made their decision, they decided to make an inspection of the site, and they asked the farmer for permission to do so. He was also asking them to attend the site as he believed the proximity of his sewage lagoon to the drilling site should be taken into account as an unacceptable risk.
The date was set for the Council to visit, and the farmer told Yellowbelly when this was. Their relationship would swing from friendly cooperation to open hostility and threats. This was clearly at a time when relations were on the more harmonious level. Yellowbelly then informed me.
I in turn informed my staff, and told them that if any of them wanted to go down to the lane and demonstrate their feelings about the proposed development at the time the Council were scheduled to show up, they could do so. I was amazed when every single one of them filed out of the factory door the next morning and walked across the fields to the road where the Councillors would access the farm and the site.
The Councillors duly arrived and were met by at least a hundred demonstrators holding up placards and shouting slogans. Some locals were also there, and the campers. The Councillors’ faces said it all. Their vehicle duly reversed and they didn’t consider driving through the assembled throng. The effects of this action were numerous.
The farmer who was on holiday in Spain was livid. He came on the phone and instructed me to remove my staff and myself from the lane. I could understand it if we were on his land, but apparently he felt his rights of ownership extended to the public highway as well! If I did not comply, he said, my arms and legs would be chopped off, and I would be buried where no one would find me. The conversation was on speaker and was heard by many people.
In fairness to the farmer, he was stressed out by all the goings-on and was not handling things at that time.
One of the campers called Paul had clearly not been a genuine activist but was an agent provocateur sent in by the other side to cause trouble. He had disconnected water pipes and parked his vehicle where the farmer had requested no vehicles should go. He came up from the South East and stood out a mile from the other campers as too sure of himself and making too many demands. He only stayed a week, but managed to stir up the rage of the farmer, who was convinced that it was Yellowbelly who was undermining his farming activities and disconnecting water pipes. The campers only wanted to cooperate but the farmer didn’t trust them any more after this time. He threatened the agent provocateur with his gun, who promptly left – or so the agent provocateur claimed.
Yellowbelly was indeed also quite a character and he ran a stern regime inside the camp, which was plastered with Anarchist insignia. His slogan should have been ‘my way or the highway’. Most chose the highway and the camp never achieved more than single figures over the later months, with a disappointing churn rate. Numbers increased at weekends and the camp had good numbers in the early months and days. A core of people did stay through to the final stages, and the camp acquired a dedicated cook called Gary, with many locals visiting and dropping off food and other supplies, which all had to be walked in. We put a water bowser for them just over the hedge.
The size of the wooden fort grew bigger by the week. It acquired battlements and a gate tower all built out of pallets and gifted timber. It all looked amazing in the local press with flags flying on masts, and Yellowbelly became a well-known figure in the area with his dreadlocks, earrings and his tattoos.
The camp defenders were planning defensive manoeuvres for when the expected police raid finally came, with a tower, where they could lock themselves away, and out of which they could pour out various noxious substances. They also planned to carry out lock-ons having special equipment made from which Police would have to extricate them, which would be very difficult and time consuming. They weren’t going to hand themselves in without a fight.
Yellowbelly also had a private rat run under the rear wall with a hole in the hedge opposite where he could make a bolt for it once the fort fell to the Police. He hoped to slip away undetected and head for the woods,. He’d been arrested at a previous camp and experienced the unnecessary brutality of the police first hand. The so-called Tactical Aid Unit of the Greater Manchester Police was usually brought in to clear anti-fracking camps and they were not known for their subtlety, it has to be said. The campers across the country facing Police invasions always referred to them as Thugs R Us.
Yellowbelly, like many site occupiers had been sent down by a judge and had a spell in prison, which he didn’t wish to repeat. He clearly had no love of the gentlemen in blue. In his heart he was a pure anarchist, and he no doubt saw me as a confused Tory for some reason taking the side of the have-nots against the haves. Despite that he accepted my gift of a warm winter Barbour coat, and many other things he needed – including logs from my stack, which kept the campers warm in all weathers.
In fact Yellowbelly and I were simply two human beings who didn’t want our earth, water and atmosphere destroyed. His reasons were possibly more idealistic, combined with a general hatred of authority. Mine were born of immediate necessity, and a desire to preserve the living environment where our family had lived for over one thousand years. As he came onto the land, I allowed him to dig a latrine on our side of the hedge – I also told him that finally it might be me that finally would have to throw him off when the time came.
In turn he informed me that his nickname Yellowbelly – we never found out his real name – doesn’t mean coward as many thought. It simply means a person from Lincolnshire. The Lincolnshire regiment had green jackets with yellow lining, and when they turned their coats they appeared yellow.
He was able to act his role as necessary, giving competent media interviews and explanations of why he opposed fracking so strongly, talk with the farmer to get his agreement to things as required, and he could plan a defensive campaign in his fort against the Police, and pass over important intelligence between the various parties, seeking any way he could to swing the decision of Dart Energy to back off and leave the site alone. Week after week, month after month, he and the camp crews worked tirelessly in the fort in all weathers. It was like visiting people living in a jail in very poor accommodation, but morale was always high and the optimism that eventually they would win never wavered.
The Councillors were impressed by the impromptu demonstration in the lane and the planning sub-committee voted unanimously against the development. Keith Barrow called me and told me that whatever the effects of the demonstration were intended to be, it had jolted a few waverers into becoming stern anti-frackers.
The farmer never got over the insult of his neighbour and the campers all trying to help him stop the fracking. He thought he could win this battle all by himself. One lucky aspect of his position was that in the contract he had signed with Dart Energy, he could cancel if drilling hadn’t commenced within three years after his signature was given to the contract. As he had initially signed in 2012, Dart were running out of time. If we could delay them just long enough, the farmer was good and ready to cancel.
Another seeming little victory was the unexpected sacking of Owen Paterson by David Cameron. Paterson was in the media day after day making pro-fracking speeches and this provided our leaflets with a ready made target and we coloured him in as the pro-fracking bogeyman who attended Bilderberg meetings and was sold out to big business and didn’t care a jot about his own constituents. By this stage we had printed a few thousand and had a small army of distributors. It must have been denting his majority.
The Guardian wrote that ‘Owen Paterson has suggested that David Cameron’s decision to sack him as environment secretary was driven by his desire to appease the “powerful, self-serving” environmental lobby – dismissed by Paterson as “the green blob”.’
There is no way of knowing but Cameron was surely aware that the fracking issue was starting to threaten Conservative rural seats, which he could not afford to lose. Paterson hadn’t ‘got’ that possibility and was simply too gung-ho in his attitudes to this issue. It gave us an easy target for our campaigning. Maybe the leaflets were filtering up the chain of command, and Cameron or whoever could see we were also directing the anger onto PM Cameron as well as Paterson the fracking bogeyman. Cameron probably did him a political favour by sacking him getting him out of the fracking hot seat, but Cameron had also shot our fox. Our leaflets had to be rewritten, and some of the heat went out of our campaign. Paterson on the other hand was furious to be dumped.
The appeal by Dart went ahead to overturn the refusal by the Shropshire Council planning sub-committee, and it was decided by a judge that a public hearing should be called with witnesses from all sides to give evidence. Chris Hesketh asked me to write up the details of my objections, the threat to our staff, our land and our business. This I did, pointing out that the farm to be fracked was covered with natural springs. It was usually considered wrong to frack land where water was being pumped from underground. I pointed out that there was no need to pump this land as the water flowed to the surface with ease all by itself, and had continued flowing throughout periods of drought like 1978. In fact our family had had a well supplied by a spring in the same field where the fracking had been proposed, for hundreds of years, called ‘the Plas Yolyn well’.
For some reason I had failed to mention this in earlier pieces I had filed at the Council about the fracking proposal so Dart had not prepared any defence against this entirely new accusation that they would pollute a pristine water supply just yards away from their proposed site. Whether this persuaded them to withdraw, or simply that by this time, there was a huge volume of local opposition, we will never know. But they withdrew saying the land was unsuitable for the operation they had proposed and would not be returning. It was a stunning and unexpected victory.
Events were now running our way, and the farmer was able to withdraw from his contract as the necessary time elapsed soon after, and the threat to the village was apparently over. We would not be dying from methane poisoning after all, going blind or having our streams and land polluted and permanently ruined.
Dudleston was the first case in the country where a farmer was able to get out of a fracking contract with an exploration company.
Cameron’s government were not giving up and they began talking of the industry being of national strategic importance, which suggested they might introduce powers such as compulsory purchase and development. As the campers withdrew off the farmer’s land I allowed them to put up some temporary shelters on my field the other side of the hedge and for a year more, the campers lived there. From this base they attended the site at Borras near Wrexham helping the Welsh anti-fracking effort just over the border near Wrexham, until the Welsh government brought in a moratorium on the industry in Wales. Scotland too did the same leaving England as the only remaining country in the UK in which fracking remained a threat.
Shropshire Council decided to act against the camp, and threatened to bring a case against me for allowing engineering works and people to live on my land without planning permission. I had to appoint a planning lawyer, and defended myself against the accusations, managing to avoid a compulsory clearance promising to move the campers on or employ them. All but one left, as I had no choice but to evict them. Relations by now had deteriorated between us and Yellowbelly. He was not an easy character to handle. Without a running battle with authority for him to get his teeth into, he seemed lost and he became difficult to handle. He needed an enemy in his sights to be able to function.
Only Gary the cook stayed on and four years on he still works for the company. The rest of the anti-fracking campers have now long gone, although we will always be grateful for their dedication and commitment, which did much to tire Dart Energy out, win public support for our campaign and get them gone. Had Dart Energy been able to throw up a perimeter fence quickly before we occupied the site, they would have been in a much stronger position to push through on their contract, with demonstrators only able to slow walk vehicles and jeer from the sidelines. Occupying the ground had been a critical factor in the success of the anti-fracking campaign in Dudleston as it was in other places that successfully resisted. Furthermore with Dudleston blocked, and the Council and people alerted, fracking never came to Shropshire. With Shropshire closed, the West Midlands remained untouched. The frackers moved on to other areas. We had successfully fought a battle, which affected the national position.
The farmer wanted to forget the whole thing and move on. He did this by cutting off the stream that had flowed since time immemorial from his land onto mine. He put a new pipe underground channelling the stream to his farm where 90% of it goes straight into the brook. We now get no flow at all. That was my repayment for helping to save him from his own folly, apparently, an unforgiveable sin, which will never be forgiven. He had funding from Natural England, and the Environment Agency who refused to stop his works after I asked them to take a look at the cut-off stream. They gave him a large grant and various contractors were making money from his new irrigation system. What do little streams matter when government departments and employees are handing out or scooping up payments?
The farmer and I held a meeting at the Environment Agency in Shrewsbury in which he promised to re-establish the flow of the stream by putting ‘an elbow’ into the collecting tank so that there were once more two outflows as there had been previously. Originally of course the whole stream flowed onto our side of the hedge, before the first collecting chamber was put in.
Two years later, I am still waiting for my stream to flow once more. I hope the farmer finds time to correct the situation and put our environment back as it was before the fracking threat descended. Then indeed, he can move on.
‘The Spirit Of Business. My Extraordinary Life.’ Chapter 23. Book available from Curteis Ltd. via www.curteis.com
Formerly published as ‘From Cows To Chains. My Extraordinary Life.’ Available on Kindle without fracking chapter.
Picture – L to R Henry, Charlie aged 6, Dan, Karen and Yellowbelly.