Saturday, 31 August 2013

Fracking protests & measures of success

The fracking protests at Balcombe have been going on for over a month now, and to mark this occasion, BBC Radio Sussex Breakfast Show interviewed me on 30/8/13 as part of their coverage (significant points in the 3 hour programme are covered below & should be available on BBC iPlayer until 5/9/13).

The focus of the interview was whether or not companies can be put off taking on environmentally contentious projects, because they may fear the negative publicity (and extra security costs) that direct action protests can generate. I spoke after a representative from a drilling company involved in similar projects to Balcombe in Sussex, and I suggested that whatever they may say publicly, such protests may mean that private companies are more cautious about taking on similar projects in future. This got me thinking about how success in these campaigns can be measured by those involved, and that outright 'victory' is not the only way that protestors can gauge the effectiveness of their actions.

 Previous posts I have done on the protests at Balcombe have looked at campaigners' sense of collective identity, and their perceptions of legitimacy, but there has also been research done into how those involved in such campaigns feel about the success (or not) of their actions, and any resulting empowerment (Cocking & Drury, 2004; Drury et al 2005; Drury & Reicher, 2009). Common sense might suggest that people would not get involved in such protests (which can result in a great personal hardship and/or sacrifice) if they did not think that they would achieve something through their actions. However, not achieving the immediate visible objectives of direct action protests (e.g. to delay or even stop the particular scheme that they're protesting about), does not mean that protestors will necessarily consider their actions as 'failure'. In a previous post on the protests against the Bexhill to Hastings link road, I looked at the concept of quiet victories vs. noisy defeats in direct action campaigns, where protestors often defined their success in how they successfully raised public awareness about the specific issue, and/or how their actions often deterred other future schemes from happening. This certainly happened with the anti-roads movement in the 1990s, where the £21 billion road building scheme initially proposed by the Major government in 1992 was slashed after huge direct action protests (such as the Twyford Down, no M11-link road, and Newbury by-pass campaigns).

I think we may see a similar situation as a result of the protests at Balcombe, in that whether or not drilling actually stops before the proposed deadline of sept 28th may not be how the campaign is defined as a success or not, but in its ability to bring the issue of fossil fuel extraction centre stage and to prevent other similar schemes being undertaken in future. post on the campaign web-site looks at how there may be wider issues involved than merely stopping the work at Balcombe. Cuadrilla is undertaking exploratory drilling (and not full scale oil production), and is likely to finish their operations by the end of September, and there are concerns that the data from this project could inform larger scale projects involving much more drilling at multiple sites across the region (which would be necessary to make any extraction economically viable). This could mean that the drilling at Balcombe could be the thin end of the wedge that sees similar operations springing up all over Sussex and beyond. Therefore, one focus of this campaign is to deter other companies from taking on similar projects, and from 1-28th September a rolling blockade of the site has also been announced. Therefore, it seems that the protests will continue for the immediate short term, but I also doubt that the campaign will come to an immediate end if the drilling at Balcombe finishes by the end of this month, and we may see similar protests spreading if further schemes are announced elsewhere in the region or further afield. 


Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle.Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Beale, J., Hanson, C., & Rapley, F. (2005). The phenomenology of empowerment in collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 309-328.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change:Researching crowds and power. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 707–725.

BBC South today Breakfast show 30/8/13 highlights:

1.50 Interview with Vanessa from Frack Free Sussex rejecting significance of 60 locals anonymously signing pro-fracking letter for media, suggesting that they could be people living on Balcombe estate (the land where the drilling is taking place) and so have a vested interested in being pro-fracking, and are not representative of the wider Balcombe community.

2.18-2.23 John Blair-Meyers- representative of Sussex based drilling company. Talks about how drilling companies need 'social license' to operate & need to engage with local community, admitting ‘people have legitimate concerns’ about fracking, and the ‘industry still has some work to do to explain’. 

2.23-2.25 Interview with me. I talk about how companies can be put off bidding for environmentally contentious projects (as happened with anti-roads movement in 1990s). But even if they claim to not be put off (and Cuadrilla are currently very gung ho about continuing at Balcombe) this could be for PR reasons & not wanting to be seen as running scared, when in fact they are concerned about negative publicity. I pointed out that it is also important to consider wider factors such as potential opposition from the local community, local government and sometimes even the local police force (as happened during the Shoreham live exports protests in 1995). 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Balcombe fracking protests and perceptions of legitimacy

A lot has happened at the fracking protests in Balcombe since my last post, with the campaign growing exponentially, not only in size, but also in the media attention it has been getting. Since the protests began in late July, the camp outside the site entrance has become significantly bigger, spreading up the B2036 road towards Balcombe village, and protestors have now occupied the field adjacent to the site and set up tree houses. From 16-21st August, the campaign has also been joined by the national campaign group no dash for gas, who decided at the last minute to move their planned camp down to Balcombe in solidarity with the protests. This resulted in a 2000 strong march on Sunday 18th August, where campaigners formed a human chain around the site. Monday 19th August saw direct action in four different places: against firms associated with the drilling in London and Lichfield, the local MP’s constituency office (who is a supporter of fracking in Balcombe), and a blockade outside the main entrance to the site, which saw the Green MP for Brighton Caroline Lucas arrested for obstruction of the highway along with up to 30 others.

The response from the police has also significantly increased, with Sussex police having spent nearly £750,000 so far in policing the protests- the vast majority of costs being due to the increased police presence at the protests. Over the last few days at the protests, I have seen officers from at least 13 different forces across the country, including the Metropolitan Police, and from as far away as Wales and Devon & Cornwall. Despite these large numbers of police on duty (up to 300 on standby according to some BBC reports), the atmosphere tended to be fairly relaxed over the weekend, but there were scuffles when police began arresting people at the site blockade on Monday  and police have begun entering the site in riot gear, as seen in this photo circulated on Tuesday 20th august. 

 I suspect that we will see more protests at the Balcombe site in the coming days and weeks, and they may also spread elsewhere over time. However I think events of the last few days also illustrate interesting points that highlight some aspects about the nature of collective action protests and the psychological issues involved. My last post looked at protestors’ sense of collective identity, but possible differences in views of legitimacy are also important to consider when looking at events like these.

A previous post I wrote looked at how differing views of what was legitimate behaviour created distrust between the Police and those protesting against a march by the far-right in Brighton this summer, and I think there are also similar issues at play in the fracking protests. There has been a lot of debate in media interviews questioning the legitimacy of the protestors’ actions in trying to stop the drilling. For instance, Cuadrilla’s CEO (Frances Egan) told the BBC that direct action protests were “unacceptable”, condemning what he called "illegal operations" against the company and its staff, and the police have also spoken about their duty to uphold the ‘lawful’ activity of the company against ‘unlawful’ protests.

However, (and perhaps unsurprisingly) protestors have a different view of what is legitimate behaviour. They consider that their actions are justified in that they are acting to prevent environmental damage to the immediate locality (there are concerns that the local water supply will be contaminated by the waste products used in fracking), and to reduce what they see as a continued dependence on fossil fuels that will contribute to increased emissions of global warming gases such as methane and the long terms effects of climate change. This means that some protestors believe that it is sometimes necessary to break the law to raise awareness of (or even try to physically disrupt) what they consider to be environmentally damaging operations. Indeed, before her arrest, Caroline Lucas spoke to the BBC about why she considered it necessary to commit peaceful civil disobedience in this situation.

The ongoing controversy over the police use of pressure points further highlights this clash of views over legitimacy. The photo below catches the moment this technique was used on Caroline Lucas’s son as he was arrested and has caused a barrage of criticism in the mainstream and social media. The local Police Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs later defended the use of pressure points as a tactic to move non-compliant protestors, but some Twitter users have questioned its legality, and an on-line petition calling on Sussex police to stop using this tactic at the Balcombe protests had already gained nearly 5000 signatures before this incident occurred.

Many locals also feel a sense of grievance because of the process of how fracking began in Balcombe. For instance, coverage of the story in the most recent Private Eye highlights a lack of proper debate in the planning process that Cuadrilla went through, suggesting that had there been greater awareness of what the fracking process involved, then it would have not got planning permission to drill the site in the first place. Indeed, Caroline Lucas told the BBC radio 4’s Today programme on 20th August that 'we haven't had an honest debate about this'.

In a further twist, some protestors also believe that Cuadrilla are acting illegitimately in that they are committing long term environmental damage in the pursuit of short term financial gain. I recently saw an interesting stand-off by the site entrance last week, where protestors surrounded a representative of the landowners where the drilling is taking place, demanding that he be arrested for complicity in environmental crimes, meaning he had to be escorted away by police, as shown in the photo below.

Recent events at Balcombe have shown that views of what counts as legitimate behaviour often differ between opposing sides in such collective action protests. Furthermore, it is this clash of views that can often cause conflict between them, and protestors often become more united in the face of what they perceive to be illegitimate and indiscriminate police public order tactics (such as 'kettling' and charges)- something that has been found in previous studies of protests (Reicher, 1996; Drury & Reicher, 2000; Cocking, 2013). It is not always possible to reconcile such views completely, and in this current situation, Cuadrilla seem determined to continue its operations at the site, and campaigners are equally determined to stop them! However, I think it is important to recognize that ‘legitimacy’ can be a fluid concept, and worry that to simply write off the campaign as engaging in illegitimate or even ‘unlawful’ behaviour (as often stated by Cuadrilla and the police) risks becoming part of a general attempt to avoid debating relevant issues and to denigrate the protestors’ cause without engaging with the often principled reasons they may have for their actions.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 10: 219–236 

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2000). Collective action and psychological change: The emergence of new social identities. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 579–604.

Reicher, S. (1996). ‘The Battle of Westminster’: Developing the social identity model of crowd behaviour in order to explain the initiation and development of collective conflict. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 115-34.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Fracking protests in Balcombe and collective identity

I had an interesting visit to the direct action protests against fracking in the Sussex village of Balcombe this week. As I arrived at the site, police were trying to clear an old fire engine which protestors had used to block the entrance to the site. It took nearly 6 hours to move because people were locked on inside and some were also glued to the entrance gate. In response to these protests Sussex Police have so far employed large numbers of officers from all over the county, including at least 3 Inspectors from 2 Public order details ('KB' and 'KL'), Police Liaison Officers, Evidence Gatherers, and a Tactical Advisor (who advises at public order events). Therefore, press speculation that up to 90 Police are on duty each day seems fairly close to the mark to me, and this will be a significant financial drain on their resources. 


One thing I found interesting was the general collective unity of the protests, with locals from Balcombe standing shoulder to shoulder with seasoned environmental activists from further afield. They have also attracted high profile support (including human rights activist Bianca Jagger and Nathalie Hynde (the daughter of Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and the Kinks' Ray Davies), and the protests on 1/8/13 saw fracking campaigners from Lancashire coming down to show solidarity. This illustrates quite well how such protests can attract a diverse range of protestors from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds, but how they can also come together psychologically through their involvement, developing broader identities and perspectives. This reminds me of the research I did for my PhD into the protests against the Newbury bypass in the 1990's (covered in a previous blog post), where protestors rejected Press accusations of nimbyism (‘not in my back yard’), believing that the environment for all is at risk if environmentally damaging projects go ahead unopposed. This means that protestors in such campaigns often feel they are acting in everyone's interest, and suggestions that they would not be concerned if it was happening somewhere else are somewhat misplaced. For, while protestors may start off campaigning against a specific scheme in their locality, research in this area (Cocking & Drury, 2004; Drury et al, 2003; 2005) has found that they can often experience a process of psychological change, which means they become involved in campaigns about broader environmental and/or social justice issues afterwards. 

I also saw little overt hostility towards the Police from protestors (despite forceful arrest tactics being used at times),  and they would often try to invoke a shared common identity with the Police (e.g. 'we all live on the same planet') and appeal to them stop protecting what they saw as environmentally damaging practices. There was even one local protestor who claimed to be an ex Police sergeant and called upon the other police to stop what they were doing. I'm not sure how successful such this strategy will be given the relative strength of occupational identity that the police probably have (and the consequences for their career if they refused to obey orders!), but during the Newbury bypass campaign, protestors had some success in appealing to the private security guards to stop working on the project. This was because the security tended to have a weaker group identity (as most were on short term contracts, and faced unemployment once the protests ended), and dozens resigned, with 3 even joining the protests!
We shall see how this protests develops, but so far it seems to be growing in numbers, and I suspect that the announcement that drilling has now begun (as of 2/8/13) may encourage increased popular protest in the Sussex countryside and possibly elsewhere. 
For more information, see the protestors' website -, or the latest BBC newsI also did an interview with BBC Radio Sussex about the psychological processes involved in such protests and their effectiveness (coverage starts about 1hr 39 mins with an interview with a local protestor, and then with me at about 1hr 41 into the programme).


Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

Drury, J., Reicher, S., & Stott, C. (2003). Transforming the boundaries of collective identity: From the "local" anti-road campaign to "global" resistance? Social Movement Studies, 2, 191-212.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Beale, J., Hanson, C., & Rapley, F. (2005). The phenomenology of empowerment in collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 309-328.