This is a shared statement from the protectors of the Pont Valley detailing our experiences of the eviction and the dangerous and abusive behaviour we experienced and witnessed from the enforcement officers, police, and Banks Group employees.
The April 19th-20th eviction of Pont Valley Protection Camp was enforced by Banks Group so they can build the infrastructure to extract coal from the Valley. All of our actions have been done in reaction to Banks Groups’ total disregard of local concerns, the protected species that inhabit the Pont Valley, and the global threat of climate change as they aim to carry out their plans. For the past 30 years local people have been legally campaigning against the planned opencast mine. A recent petition signed by over 80,000 people to the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, received no concrete response. Our direct action is the last resort in a long and difficult campaign against opencast mining in the area.
Now we demand action to be taken for the reckless and irresponsible activities, committed by the enforcement officers and police, due to the demands of Banks Group. It is clear that the council and police are only concerned with protecting the profit driven interests of Banks Group over our safety and the protected species of the area.
The enforcement officers were completely unprepared. They lacked the skills and expertise to evict the site. Yet the choice was still taken, by the council, the police, and Banks Group, to do the eviction despite having the ability to leave and return more prepared. This would have ensured the safety of the protectors and the workers. The impetus to do the eviction at such speed, regardless of people’s safety, can only be explained by Banks’ desire to begin work as quickly as possible; meeting the requirements of the planning permission.
The protectors that placed themselves in the tunnels, the lock-ons, the tree and the tripod, understand the standard conduct and protocol taken to safely remove people from such devices. None of this was met. Instead the eviction was committed with such negligence that, for those who self-released, believed it was only through choosing to remove themselves that serious bodily harm was avoided.
Tunnels – T1&2
Both individuals in the tunnels (T1&2) witnessed breaches of safety, a lack of protocol, and unacceptable behaviour. Despite numerous warnings from the beginning, by supporters and resident legal observers, no checks were carried out to assess the number of people in the tunnels, or the size of the tunnels. The tunnels were of the same design with a vertical shaft roughly two metres deep, with a tunnel in one direction so the protectors could sit with their legs stretched. They were both dug into clay, but because there were no supports, additional weight to the tunnels was extremely dangerous.
The protector in T1 has stated that the enforcement officers never knew nor made any attempts to understand the workings of the tunnel, yet made the assumption that it was only her inside. No efforts were made to access the actual nature of the tunnel. The protector in T2 has stated that the enforcement officers had no experience in dealing with tunnels. “From what they said to each other they had never come across anything like them (the tunnels) and didn’t know how to proceed with them. Despite that, one bailiff attempted to climb into the tunnel without a harness or a torch, even though there was no space to stand except on top of me. After that no attempt was made to inspect the tunnel beyond the downward shaft. So basically they had no idea how deep the tunnels were or where they went”.
Despite the concerns raised by supporters and legal observers, and the failure to access the nature of the tunnels, the police and Banks Group allowed for heavy machinery to be brought dangerously close to the tunnels. Both protectors reported feeling the vibrations from the machinery. T1 moved her legs out of the tunnel due to the fear of it collapsing. T2 has stated that “at one point, one of the bailiffs said that they were going to put a metal sheet over the tunnel to allow machines to pass over me”. This is not a common intimidation tactic but clear ignorance, dangerously risking the lives of T1&2. The protectors in the Tree House (TH) and the tripod (TP) could see how close the vehicles were to the tunnels. From the tree, TH1 has reported seeing a digger standing close to one of the women in the lock on under the tripod (TP). The use of heavy machinery so close to a tunnel, with no understanding of its nature, is negligence. TP also questioned the scaffolders as they began carrying the scaffolding equipment over the tunnel to the tripod. “I asked him if he thought it was dangerous to be carrying scaffolding over the tunnel to which he only shrugged and offered me no concrete answer. It was clear that neither he nor any of those commanding him were aware of any of the implications that such actions would have for the person in the tunnel”.
A failure to take adequate safety measures was also demonstrated in the lack of equipment provided to T1&2. The lack of awareness demonstrated by the police, enforcement officers, and Banks Group placed themselves, as well as the protectors, in danger. Enforcement officers, amongst others, were continually passing over and past the tunnel closest to the tripod. Despite T1 repeatedly asking for cones to be put up around the tunnels edge, it was only when an enforcement officer tripped and nearly fell into the tunnel that any precautions were taken. Neither T1 nor T2 were given safety glasses or protective blankets. This is negligence considering that dirt was constantly falling inside the tunnel; from those walking too close to them, vibrations from the heavy machinery and the removal of the tents with no care given to any of the repercussions of these actions. T1 repeatedly asked for safety glasses and despite being offered some, first by an enforcement officer and then a police officer, was not at any stage provided with them. The failure to provide safety equipment suggests that there simply was none. All protectors in lock on devices on the ground experienced the lack of necessary safety equipment.
The lack of care was also displayed in comments made by the enforcement officers. T2 heard the enforcement officers discussing how tired they were. “One of the first things I heard from a number of bailiffs that left me concerned was that they were all really tired from previous work. One said that he had been awake since 11am the previous day (Wednesday 18th)”. This demonstrates the complete lack of care from the council and Banks Group for their employees as well as the protectors of the Pont Valley.
Unprofessional behaviour was also demonstrated in the continual abuse and threats made to the protectors by the enforcement officers. T2 has said how verbal abuse and threats were made regularly to encourage him to leave the tunnel. These included suggesting to “jump on top of me and break my arm in the lock on and drag me out”; and “hopefully it will rain tonight so he gets drowned out”. T1 heard how the enforcement officers were complaining about how hard it was to get her out and how they wished they could use “waterboarding and napalm” on her and her fellow protectors. She has also stated hearing them laughing about using pressure points and how they have used violent tactics on previous jobs. The enforcement officers “joked and bragged about how one had body surfed with their knee to someone’s throat on another job”. At the end of the day they were discussing what they were going to go home and eat. One said “I’m going to go and eat a curry and then come shit on you in the morning”.
Ground Lock On – GL1&2
Both protectors in the ground lock ons (GL) also suffered from the failure of the enforcement officers to adhere to safety standard and from abusive language directed at them.
GL1&2 were not given eye protection straight away despite the enforcement officers immediately attempting to break apart the concrete with shovels and hammers. It was only when they started to use power tools on the lock on that eye protection was offered. One officer endangered himself and all those around him by giving GL2 his protective glasses, despite the fact he was operating power tools.
Safety blankets were eventually given after the insistence of the protectors yet these were too small to cover the GLs bodies and were also made of ineffective material. Neither of the women were given ear defenders nor were any of the enforcement officers using such despite bringing out what they described as “the big boy tools” i.e. power tools.
The lack of any protocol was demonstrated in the apparent frustration of the officers in their inability to cut through the lock on. They continually attempted to pull both members of the GL out of the lock on regardless of the two protectors cries of pain and telling the officers they were chained inside the lock on (what they were doing was simply tightening chains around their wrists). One of the protectors in the lock on has stated that;
“They wanted to pressure me to remove my arm from the lock on. They would not believe that the chain was wrapped around my wrist, they just thought I was grabbing onto it so they kept pulling on my arm even though I repeatedly told them, even swearing, that I was not holding onto the chain. They used a certain amount of violence; applying pressure on pressure points to force me to cooperate… They then understood that only by relaxing my arm; the chain could maybe slide off. By this time my hand had swollen because of how much the officers had tightened the chain. They then proceeded by spilling down some water into the lock on despite my protests. This obviously didn’t help free my arm but just made it more uncomfortable for me. At this stage I was no longer able to move my arm as I was in so much pain.”
GL1&2’s lock on tubes were made of sheets of carpet, concrete and metal tubing. Moving them without care or caution could have had serious implications for the protectors chained to them. Yet the enforcement officers acted with cruelty, even laughing when GL2 said that their plans to cut out the bottom of the tube could have cut off her fingers. The most blatant breach of safety regulations was that the enforcement officers removed GL2 by wrapping a chain around the tube and attaching it to a digger, pulling it out with the force of the moving digger. This can only be due to their want to speed up the process as much as possible. None of us have ever even heard of such tactics being used to remove a lock on device. Her details of this event are as followed;
“They then decided to use a digger to accelerate their work and remove me from the lock on. This was really scary and dangerous because using such a big machine would mean that there wasn’t much precision or control in the work. My arm was in a lot of pain and I was just hoping that the metal tube wouldn’t move to quickly as it would break my arm. They used the digger to first remove the other lock on and some concrete. Then they wrapped a chain around the tube and attached the end of the chain to a digger. They then proceeded to pull on the chain to lift the lock on with my arm inside. At this point, the officers had acknowledged that the chain could possibly slip off from the tube and cut through my shoulder with the metal tube falling back and breaking my arm. But they didn’t seem to care enough to stop. As they lifted the tube I also had to slowly move with it in order not to break my arm. The officers had then planned to pull up the tube with my arm in it and drag the whole thing on the digger to the police station and then to the hospital to cut open the tube and free my arm. This whole experience was accompanied by the mocking, bullying and cruelty of the officers watching me cry in pain. They used unnecessary violence and they seemed to want to get their work done as early as possible regardless of whether or not what they were doing was dangerous.”
Not only were these actions a serious danger to the life of GL2 but also to T1 just metres away. The protector in the tree house, TH1, described what they saw;
“At one point the bucket of the digger looked to be about 1 metre away from the person in the lock on under the tripod. It was there for a considerable amount of time. I found out afterwards they were trying to pull the lock on away with the digger while someone was in it. This would have broken her arm. Also this was very close to the tunnel, around 3 metres, and could have caused the tunnel to collapse”.
WB1 also witnessed the events that occurred during the removal of GL1&2;
“I saw lots of physical force used against GL1&2 as they were being cut out. Three men were holding one of the women down at a time, they were screaming in pain and that they were hurting her, and they just kept going and said they could just unclip etc. They kept trying to pull their arms out, even though they told them it would not let their arms out.
They used heavy machinery less than 2 metres away from the tunnel. I saw them wrapping a huge chain around the sleeping dragon lock on and attaching it to a digger, which they then reversed out, pulling the lock on with the woman’s arm still inside. She shouted she needed someone to physically support her because of the position, which after a little while they decided to do. They dragged the lock on over ground with the heavy machinery with her clipped on and one of the construction workers or enforcement men who were positioned directly behind her made movements as if to rape her. I saw she had to use a long stick to loosen the lock on chain to be able to unclip. During this whole thing there were often between 6 – 18 men standing above her using verbal intimidation and belittling. (NB: kill them all.)
When I questioned a bailiff about their duty of care after seeing them be physically violent to another lock on, he said they don’t have a duty of care to us unless we are unconscious or equivalently unable to look after ourselves.”
A lack of professionalism was also demonstrated in the threats and comments made by the enforcement officers. To GL the officers stated they would “cut their arms off” instead of removing them safely. They also demonstrated their unprofessional and unacceptable behaviour in the sexist and abusive comments made to the women. To one they stated she should “go home, shower and shave hers legs”. Another stated to the same woman that “I’d rather not stroke her furry legs”. They also made an implicit sexual reference towards the other woman joking, “Don’t touch her bits or she’ll file a complaint”. To the same woman the enforcement officers touched her breast and lower back without consent.
This reckless and macho behaviour was further demonstrated after GL1&2 had been arrested. T1 overheard the enforcement officers discussing the two women in a “sexual and vile way”. They laughed about the idea of one of the women “being finger banged by their cousin” in which someone else joined in about it being with a “butch dyke”. The enforcement officers continued the conversation with “two in the kitty one in the shitty” and “don’t lose your wrist watch”. T1 commented that “I was so angry I didn’t know what to do. I wanted a legal observer but obviously the police would not allow this”. This behaviour is completely unacceptable and the fact that such carelessness and abuse was allowed to go on unchecked by the police, the council, and Banks Group only serves to demonstrate that all parties enforcing this eviction had no care for the welfare of any individuals involved.
Wheelie Bin – WB1&2
The protectors in the bin lock on (B1&2) also experienced and witnessed dangerous and abusive behaviour from the enforcement officers, and a serious lack of care from the Police Liaison Officers.
After the removal of the tent around WB1&2, the enforcement officers removed their food bucket, placing it out of reach 2 metres away. At the same time they removed WB2’s wellies which were on the ground next to him and took these off site, despite being asked not to do so. They also removed the sleeping bags and roll mats that WB1&2 were lying on, leaving them 1.5 metres away. When WB1 told them they were entitled to welfare, an officer responded “welfare?! What welfare? It’s all over here. Come and get it if you want it!” After about 10 minutes they took the stuff off site. WB1&2 spent the rest of the day and night lying on pallets and got sunburn from having no cover. No safety equipment was provided to either protector in the lock on
The lack of skills to dismantle the defences was evident with the failure of one of the men (an assumed Banks’ employee) to understand what a lock on was. WB1 has stated that when she asked the person who came over to the lock ons with tools to commence work if he has seen a lock on before, he did not know what she meant. When she clarified that she meant the device they were locked on to, he replied “no, I’ve never seen one of these before”. He then proceeded ineffectively to chip away at the concrete with a jackhammer. While they were working on the lock on, inadequate safety equipment was provided. WB2 received glasses for eye protection, and WB1 received a thin plastic blanket.
WB1&2 also experienced similar intimidatory tactics that were inflicted on the other protectors. Later on, other enforcement officers came over to WB and discussed the best way to get into the lock on. They said they should put the wheelie bin full of concrete on its side. WB1 has stated “I said very clearly, that if they do that it will break our arms. They responded we “could just unclip”. They were extremely keen to do this until a bailiff with more power came over and said they couldn’t do that as it would break our wrists.”
The enforcement officers also repeatedly told them they would be charged with crimes that conflicted with information provided by the police. The enforcement officers mocked WB1&2, telling them they had already lost, what they were doing was pointless and that it was not worth it. One claimed to own land with biodiversity and said there was none here and it was a dead zone not worth defending.
The Police Liaison Officers (PLO’s) also failed in their duty of care, and despite claiming to be there to ensure the welfare of the protectors, failed to do so. After around 6 hours of being locked on, male and female PLO’s asked WB1&2 if they needed anything. WB1 asked for their food bucket which was 2 metres away. However, they denied any ability to bring it over to her and walked away, no further help was offered.
After the work was done for the day the enforcement officers put harris fencing around WB1&2. Sometime after dark, maybe 8-9.30pm, the enforcement officers offered WB1&2 bananas, which they placed just under the fence, out of reach of the protectors.
As the enforcement officers had previously taken away all their sleeping bags and mats, WB1&2 had no blankets for several hours into the night. They only received blankets after BBC were filming T1 by the fence and asked if she had what she needed, to which WB1 shouted out they needed blankets. After this, a local person managed to get the enforcement officers to give them some blankets.
Tree House – TH1&2
The experience of the protectors in the Tree House (TH) contrasts the other protectors since due to the enforcement officers being physically unable to reach the TH a separate specialist team had to be drafted in. The climbing removal team was directly employed by Banks Group yet it was only the team itself, not their employers Banks Group, which ensured that the operation was carried out safely and correctly. In contrast to the actions of the enforcement officers, the team that were employed to remove TH1&2 only emphasized the need for us to voice our grievances with the actions taken by the enforcement officers, Banks Group and the police during the eviction. This was only due to Banks Group being forced to pay for a professional team to come up from Surrey. Both TH1&2 felt they were treated respectfully and that a clear protocol and safety conduct was followed during the removal of the lock on. Although we do not agree with tree climbers who make a living off companies who want to cut down the very trees they climb, the climbing team did not seriously endanger the lives of the protectors through their own actions. This was despite the wishes of Banks Group, who wanted the removal operatives to work faster than they could safely. TH1 witnessed a conversation between removal operatives in the tree and on the ground, “They (i.e. Banks Group) don’t want us to take an hour and a half, more like 10 minutes as they want it done fast”, the reply of the Removal operatives in the tree house was, “It won’t take an hour and a half, but we are doing it safely”.
Throughout the day of the 19th, Lewis Stokes, the community relations manager for Banks Group, attempted to talk the protectors down from the tree. He claimed that he could get reduced sentences for the individuals; even going so far to say that he would have words with the police and they would not receive any charges. Lewis Stokes’ also made the same promises to T2, as well as manipulating the truth to try and convince T2 to unlock. After failing to convince T2 with promises of reduced sentences, Stokes threatened him with the claim that a digger would come to dig the protector out and that he would suffer a higher charge. This forces us to question the relation between Banks Group and the police since no ordinary person would have such powers. It also calls into question what Lewis Stokes’ role actually is considering he has failed in his duties as community relations manager. He has only met with 2 out of the 18 residents of Douglas and Hedley Terrace, the closest residents to the planned mine, and there is little evidence of him reaching any other nearby communities. He has claimed to wish to start a dialogue with the locals yet this dialogue only has one condition; that the mine will go ahead. We have considerable footage of Lewis Stokes attempting to talk the individuals down from the tree. Hence calling in a professional team, and ensuring the safety of the protectors in the tree, can only have been the least desirable response by Banks Group.
During direct action, Legal observers are required to record any events during the actions as well as providing welfare to those in need. In this eviction, their role was completely restricted to the other side of the road, allowing for the aforementioned breaches in safety and abusive behaviour to go on unchecked. Contradictory information was continually fed to them by the police and enforcement officers limiting their abilities to fulfil their legal role. Two of the Resident Legal Observers documented their experiences as follows;
“The Police Liaison Officers (PLO’s) claimed that Durham Constabulary had insisted we, as legal observers, could not cross the road to see to the well-being of protectors and that the PLO had been tasked to ensure health and safety and promised to keep us regularly updated. They didn’t. We kept having to ask – it’s all on my FB live stream. Later I found out from a protector that two PLO’s had actively ignored their requests.
Although the night time shift of police were prepared to turn a blind eye to us possibly throwing supplies over the fence. Their jurisdiction ended at the fence and thereafter it was under the enforcement officers or bailiff’s rules. They, when politely asked, refused to convey chips to the protectors until after a protracted negotiation we managed to get chips and blankets through.
Another local witnessed bailiffs trying to intimidate the protector in the caravan (7) by shining headlights continually into caravan. They stopped after the local requested them not to.”
“Firstly, on both days, the number of Resident Legal Observers (RLO) was insufficient to cover the area of the protest and RLOs were not allowed close enough to protectors to fulfil their role effectively;
Secondly, the enforcement of S35 was not initially explained to those who needed to understand it and reasons given for removal of members of the public exercising their right to protest peacefully, or even observe, appeared to be unwarranted.
Thursday 19th April:
I and another RLO were restricted to coming no closer than the white line in the middle of the (closed) road (A692). Independent press were not allowed closer either; despite corporate media being granted this access. Initially a number of RLOs were allowed to be within the restricted area. I was unable to perform the role of RLO effectively as private bailiffs and police prevented me from locating myself close enough to the protesters to hear what was being said by them and to them. When the number of RLOs allowed on the closed area was decreased to 2, in effect I took on the additional role of Police Liaison, making it all the more difficult to effectively observe what was going on. The size of the area of protest and the number of locations within the area made it impossible for the two RLO to monitor the actions of bailiffs and police and to observe the protesters.
On a number of occasions, I could see that only bailiffs were with the ‘locked-on’ protectors and requested that the Police Liaison Officers went to observe.
Friday 20th April:
Both RLOs and press were moved to the opposite side (south side) of the A692. From this vantage point traffic noise prevented anyone on the south side of the road hearing anything on the north side.
PC 2366 explained people were required to move to the ‘official’ protest site a distance away because they “were not safe” on the pavement. At this point there were 6-7 people. I asked PC 2366 how many protesters she could see; she said “a few”. A BBC reporter also queried the reason for not being allowed closer to the fence on the North side of the road.
7.42: police cordon lining up in front of tree. Inspector (Insp) 708 appears to be in command. G, also an older man, was hitting a drum, making noise on the north side of the road near the tree house. I observed Insp 708 put his hand on G’s back and physically move him. When G protested that he had been pushed Insp 708 vehemently denied having touched G.
A young woman, H appeared to pretend to trip off the curb when a police officer put his hand on her back and pushed her.
9.08: H and male partner, walking along road nearer to A693 junction, issued S35 and told to leave.
9.23: I was chatting to A who was eating a bean wrap. PLO issued A with a S35. BBC reported MD queried why A had been told to leave as she was on the side of the road we had been told to move to.
PLO Caroline again explained about there being too many people. There were 4 members of the public at that time who were not RLO or Press. This included a man, C, in navy, who stood quietly throughout leaning against a fence. No one seemed to notice him.
10.18: L and G, both older men, were issued S35s. They were sitting on a wall on the south side of the A692 chatting quietly.
When S, a woman in her 70s, asked why S35s were being issued PLO, Steve, explained that there was a concern over numbers of protesters. The only member of the public at that point who was not a RLO or press was S.
11.46 PLO Terry explaining that only 2 RLOs were allowed and Press. Some confusion over status of S, who had a press card. PLO Terry talked about risk of anti-social behaviour, crime and disorder. He explained that anyone who considered themselves to be a ‘protester’ needed to move to the ‘official’ protest site, he added, ‘ideally’ protesters need to be in the allocated area. PLO Caroline said, more and more people could come.
A disabled man, L, was questioned about his continuing presence, as he had said he’d only be there for 15 minutes. It appeared that officers were about to issued him a S35 too. L explained he was waiting to meet a DCC Councillor and she’d not yet arrived. He was allowed to stay.
11.59 Specialists arrive and begin sawing branches from tree.”
The PLO’s had visited the camp consistently over the time of its existence. Each time they came and stated to the locals and residents of the camp that they were they for the protection of all. Yet none of them enabled the RLO’s to carry out their observations so that both the enforcement officers and protectors could be held accountable for their actions. The PLO’s failed to provide any assurance to the RLO’s that correct procedure and conduct was being followed. It became clear to all of us, those positioned in the defences, acting as RLO’s or members of the public, that neither the PLO’s nor the police were acting for the safety of all those involved. Had they been they would have stopped the process of eviction as soon as it became clear, which was almost immediately, that safety protocol was not being fulfilled. They would have also taken seriously the concerns of both protectors and supporters that they were ultimately aiding Banks Group in committing a wildlife crime. The police at the site were continually told of the evidence that the protected species of great crested newt had been found on the site. 999 and 101 were also repeatedly told of the crime. Yet no response was given. This only furthers the need for direct action since the law in this case was only acting for the interests of Banks Group. If this was not the case all members of police at the site would have taken the concerns for the protected species as well as the safety of the protectors seriously.
During the eviction of the Pont Valley Protection Camp on 19th and 20th April, the law was abused by the enforcement officers and other workers employed to carry out Banks’ wishes. Dangerous actions, intimidation tactics and verbal and sexist abuse was experienced and witnessed by all the protectors that were defending the site.
Some may argue, as the enforcement officers did time and time again, that we should have just unclipped if we really felt in danger. However, although we chose to remain locked on, we know that the enforcement officers have a duty by law to follow correct safety procedure. We also believe that the abusive language that was directed at us throughout the eviction is unjustifiable in any situation, whether or not we were choosing to lock on.
Although we understand that some will not agree with our tactics, we wish to state that we only took these measures when all other means of protest had been exhausted and ignored by the police, the state, and Banks’ Group. Direct action that breaks the law has been used as a platform throughout history to create meaningful change within society. Now, in the face of the global threat of climate change, the right to a sustainable future for our environment must be won. We believe that it is right to break laws that enable profit driven companies like Banks Group to carry out environmental devastation. The planning for the open cast at Druridge Bay was rejected on the grounds of climate change and we believe the same ruling is needed for Pont Valley. More than this, the campaigners who have been fighting these plans for over the past 30 years deserve to have their voices heard and respected.