Council leader Mike Jones came face-to-face with an anti-fracking protester wearing a mask bearing an image of his face during chaotic scenes outside a meeting at HQ.
Demonstrators descended on Cheshire West and Chester Council to make clear their opposition to unconventional gas extraction, often known as ‘fracking’, ahead of a decision to set up a cross party working group to develop council policy.
Traditional objectors used public speaking time to drive home concerns while outside direct action demonstrators, including the Mike Jones lookalike, stared through the glass at councillors, with a few of the protesters banging on the windows while holding placards and broadcasting their message on a megaphone which could be heard inside.
Several, including Chester businessman Matt Bryan, had come from the protest camp at a proposed coal bed methane test drill site off Duttons Lane in Upton. Mr Bryan said on the megaphone: “Fracking will not reduce your energy prices, it will only contaminate your water and lower your house prices.”
At one stage there were confrontational scenes in the HQ foyer when protesters asked to go into the meeting but one man in particular wished to continue live streaming to the web using his mobile phone, which is against council rules, although he couldn’t see a problem as the meeting is webcast live via the council website.
A council security officer told the campaigner: “Since 5pm today we have ceased to be a public building apart from that meeting through there. You are not part of that meeting.”
A police officer backed up council officials but upset the campaigner by grabbing his arm and telling him: “He says the building is closed so now it becomes private property so you need to leave.”
The protester and fellow activists were eventually allowed in after promising not to film and sat quietly in the public gallery.
Inside the meeting, Andrew Needham of the Campaign to Protect Rural England told members: “Our policy is that we do need shale gas but it needs to be in the right place and it needs to have the right conditions attached to it.”
Resident Jim Cameron said: “In view of the seriousness of the potential adverse effects on this area, I’m sure that many, like myself and many others, remain extremely concerned that the recent planning approvals have been given without the knowledge of the true facts, that exploratory drilling is going well beyond the coal bed measures and into the gas bearing shales.
“And the scale and character of the extraction is of a large industry with heavy traffic, land scarring, pipelines, road ways and contamination of air, land and water and serious effects on climate change.”
Fellow Cestrian Phil Coombe asked: “I would like to pose the question, will the proposed cross party working group discussion be open to the public and lead to a full and open consultation before a strategy is agreed and that in the meantime all planning and other approvals relating to such developments, relating to unconventional gas exploration and extraction are put on hold and the current draft local plan be amended to accommodate this exercise.”
In a written response, Cllr Jones explained that the working party would be open to the public and function as a Commission of Inquiry.
Chaired by Tory chief whip Mark Williams, other Conservative members were Cllr Howard Greenwood, Cllr Charles Fifield and Cllr Eveleigh Moore Dutton.
He wrote: “It is then intended that interested parties will be invited to submit evidence to the group, which they may be asked to present in person, at the chairman’s discretion.
“We want to give representatives and experts from both sides of the argument an opportunity to contribute to ensure the production of a fully balanced report.
“Evidence which is presented to the group will be published together with any final report.”
Cllr Jones said the council did not have the power to put decisions over any planning applications on hold.
He added that “a Local Plan Part Two” was being prepared that could include policy guidance on topics including energy.
Labour opposition leader Cllr Justin Madders said central government had been seen as “a cheerleader” for unconventional gas extraction but the local authority must act as “an honest broker”.
Anyone serving on the working party should go into the process with “an open mind”.
He said any related applications should be decided in a transparent way by the planning committee, not behind closed doors, so the public could be confident any decisions were based on the “full facts”.
Council spokesman Ian Callister said today (Thursday): “Police were called to the HQ building after demonstrators from the Direct Action Group had refused to leave the foyer – despite the fact that the fracking issue had been discussed by the executive some time earlier.
“Members had been addressed by local residents and had unanimously decided to set up a cross party working group to examine unconventional gas and oil techniques, including fracking.
“The situation was explained to demonstrators from out of the area, who had arrived late and missed the relevant agenda item. Some expressed the continued wish to attend the meeting which they did for a short time before leaving.
“Sadly others decided to continue their provocative attempts to disrupt the meeting – which at this time had absolutely nothing to do with fracking – and were asked to leave council premises, which they eventually did.
“Once again it should be stressed that there are no applications to extract shale gas in the Chester and Cheshire West area.”
Chief Inspector Richard Rees, of Cheshire Police, speaking afterwards, explained their role at the meeting. He said: “It’s trying to find that position where we allow people to peacefully protest as well as allowing people to go about their lawful business, for the reasons they are there. It’s trying to find that middle ground.”
CI Rees confirmed no allegations of assault had been lodged by the protester who had complained about being grabbed.