Hills not Holes!

Quarry Fighting in the South -West

 

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The campaign against quarrying in the South West is the longest ongoing direct action campaign in Britain. Actions against the expansion of Whatley Quarry in the Mendip hills have been happening from early '92 and have continued sporadically ever since. Two of the biggest campaigns in the last year have been against the south west being turned into a cratered landscape. The Dead Woman's Bottom camps were set up to stop the construction of a service road for the Whatley and Mier Head Quarries, while direct action secured a reprieve for important ecology near Newton Abbott - due to be blasted to mine for toilets! The campaign to save Ashton Court in Bristol from quarrying has seen actions for over two years and a camp was set up in the last couple of weeks. This article is a rough sketch of what's going on.

 

Whatley Quarry andDead Woman's Bottom

Whatley Quarry is huge, huge beyond description. Standing at the edge the vast dumper trucks look like tonka toys and your heart aches with the pain inflicted upon the earth. Over a dozen actions have been held at Whatley Quarry in Somerset, since spring 1992. Most of the early entrance blockades were only staffed by between 12 and 30 activists.1 The joy of seeing thirty trucks backed up along the road as we sat locked onto the entrance gates always compensated for the fact that it was fucking freezing and somewhere around seven in the morning.

Numbers steadily grew until we could expect around fifty people - a momentous amount at the time. Over the years dozens got arrested, offices were occupied, druids cursed at policemen and activists narrowly avoided getting blown up when they invaded the quarry (purposefully) during exploding. On one occasion a blockade lasted for hours without the police noticing that the gate was not locked up but merely tied together with a shoe lace!

In a victory for direct action in May '94 the Secretary of the State rejected ARC's plans to expand Whatley Quarry. This victory turned out to be all too temporary, within a year ARC had applied once again to expand their quarry by 85 acres. It was this that encouraged people to organise a large national action at Whatley.

The action on Monday December the 4th '95 was an even greater success than expected. The aim of the action was to highlight the destruction of the Mendip Hills and the quarry's proposed expansion. A week later the owners hadn't managed to restart work.

At 5.30 am, four hundred activists descended on the quarry. Small teams ensured gates were blockaded and all plant and machinery was occupied. Most groups were fully prepared due to workshops held the previous day, at a camp several miles from Whatley. Detailed maps and a predetermined plan ensured police and security were outmanoeuvred. Tripods were carried more than nine miles over night and set-up on the quarry's rail line whilst lorries were turned away. Drummers, colourful costumes and bagpipes kept spirits high.

By midday police sent security to drag down a large group that had occupied a spoil heap. 50 were arrested - until police vans were full. Scuffles broke out as people blocked the vans. One protesters leg was run over. It was badly bruised, not broken as first thought.

Others ensured ARC paid a more realistic price for Mendip stone (presently sold at between £2 and £3/tonne). Press reports stated that £250,000 worth of damage was caused. This excludes the cost of one weeks lost production, for a quarry normally selling eleven thousand tonnes per day!

Twenty metres of railway track leading out of the quarry 'disappeared'; the control panel for video monitoring of the plant fell apart; a two storey crane pulled itself to bits; three control rooms dismantled themselves; and several diggers and conveyor belts 'broke down'.

Sixty four were arrested, filling every nearby police station. Most of the arrests were for aggravated trespass and a considerable amount of cases were later dropped.

The action inspired everyone who went on it and really gave us a feeling of collective strength. Coming a month before the Newbury evictions kicked off it contributed significantly to the feeling of militancy and possibility that characterised that campaign.

Actions have happened occasionally ever since then but never yet again on such a scale. In summer last year attention and action was once again brought back to the Mendips when the Dead Woman's Bottom campaign set up camp a few miles from Whatley Quarry.

The following is taken from a short interview with someone who took part in the defence of Dead Woman's Bottom in January this year.

PictureThe Clearance and Eviction of Dead Woman's Bottom

Could you give a background to the campaign?

The quarrying conglomerates that already dominate the Mendips are working hand in glove with the local council to build infrastructure that will allow them to expand. At Dead Woman's Bottom they are widening a single track lane into a three and half mile dual carriageway mainly to service quarries in the immediate area - primarily Whatley, run by ARC, and Mier Head, run by Foster Yeoman. This is flattening a beautiful valley covered mainly with woodland and regenerating ex-quarry land. Asham Woods which has now been decimated is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and it contains/contained 10% of the country's remaining horseshoe bats. The project brings them even closer to extinction. The camps were set up last summer and became a real focus for people fighting quarrying all over the Mendips.

What happened at the eviction?

The bailiffs came in at 7am on the 20th of January, completely unannounced. There were children as young as two on site. This was unlike any other eviction because though its normal to be hit by surprise, until now the state have waited until they've gone through the normal possession hearings etc. in court. If your site hasn't gone through court then its reasonable to presume that you have some time to prepare. The state knew this and understood that hitting a site which had not fully developed and that was not on eviction alert would be a lot easier. They used emergency powers issued during the second world war that gave them the power to evict without prior notification or the normal court proceedings.

The police, bailiffs and climbers marched in and cordoned off the site. In their wake came the diggers and chainsaw gangs who swept across the route trashing any land or trees not occupied. Bailiffs tore down the benders and cleared the ground of people. The climbers, the same ones as always, Richard Turner's scabs from Sheffield, then set to work in the trees. The struggle in the trees continued for three days with activists and state climbers chasing each other around the branches.

Meanwhile on the ground, half way through the first day people started arriving from other places. When people were thrown off the site they were just invading the cordon again and if you were caught a second time you were nicked.

Bailiffs were drawing out white lines to mark the area they were taking control of. According to them our firepit was a yard inside the cordon. So the bailiffs came over while we were having breakfast and just circled us saying "Right boys, get them". We scarpered - three people got arrested. They then started to redraw the white line, and we realised the firepit had been outside the cordon all the time.

By the time I got there, which was quite late on, there were about 50 people. With the element of utter surprise, and hugely outnumbering an unprepared camp the Sheriff had expected the eviction to be over by the end of the first day. However it went on till the weekend. They were quite shocked, new camps were set up off route on land that belonged to farmers who were against the road. Lots of fencing was trashed and though people couldn't stop the eviction they were making the running of the eviction very difficult. A couple of dozen got arrested and were bailed away from the site. Some were having to sign on daily at the police station. Police vans and landrovers were parked at all approaching roads watching numbers & keeping a look out for bailed activists who were trying to sneak back into the exclusion zone.

How well did the network of treehouses, tunnels and lockons stand up?

Not very well - but they held up. There were five camps on route. If everyone wasn't there they could have bulldozed it in well under a day but the lock-ons lasted for about two hours each. Tree defence held up for about three days, but most of the trees were quite small - apart from at one camp, Castle Hill, which held up the longest. It was more a case of running around - cat and mouse trying to keep the eviction going. The tunnels were incomplete and not very defensible. The climbers were cutting walkways, but walkways were being put up again in the evening. When I left there were about 15-20 activists in a couple of camps set up outside the cordon. They were all intent on sabbing the place - a lot of action was being done in the evening.

Why do you think so few came to the eviction?

It wasn't very well networked, largely because no-one was on eviction standby on site or around the country. There was no contact number you could phone for the first couple of days. Site mobile numbers were not publicised around the country. There was no national phone tree - so those who knew it was going on were, quite literally, the 'usual suspects' ; who had been keeping in touch through friendship networks. It was a premature eviction, which was not fully prepared for. Richard Turner (chief state climber) said that this was a tactic they intend to use in the future. Other campaigns have to learn from Dead Woman's Bottom and set up good national phone trees etc. from the very start.

What do you think the campaign achieved?

For a start the eviction must have cost them tens of thousands. The last big action in the Mendips was two years ago but the eviction showed that anti-quarry campaigns are still going on. It reminded everyone that the industrial monster is munching away at the Mendips - and needs to be stopped. Dead Woman's Bottom and the Teigngrace campaign have highlighted the fact that we're not stuck on road protesting or single issues. It doesn't matter what's bulldozing and chainsawing the land, wherever nature and the wild is under attack we'll resist and throw a spanner in the cogs of the machine.

What do you think the future of the campaign is?

Many were adamant that they would stay. It's a road linking quarries together, the list of potential offensive targets is almost limitless. The cops were going 'Why aren't you leaving - it's all over' and people replied 'it's not over - this is just the beginning.' Some of the best anti-road campaigns have been most effective after the trees come down, because that's when the cranes go up. The expensive machinery moves in and the workers come in who have to be paid whether they're working, or the site is occupied. People are going to dig their heels in because it was a really beautiful place, that lots of people feel really linked to and part of.

Solidarity actions are really needed - ARC & Foster Yeoman offices, quarries and depots should be especially targeted. Campaigners are going to stay in the Mendips, other sites are coming up. Whatley Quarry is due to be expanded, so is Mier Head Quarry, two of some of the biggest quarries in Europe. The direct action has gone on for 6 years now in the Mendips and people will still be resisting in another six years.

Campaign Update

As of mid March all of the thirty arrested have had their cases dropped, and many have started suing the police for wrongful arrest. Campaign solicitors are looking into the legality of the eviction and the cases being dropped is a good sign that the sheriff and police are worried. A camp is still in existence off route and there has been a bit of post eviction bulldozer diving. An info line is updated regularly so Tel. 01749 880144 and get down there!

(1) See issues 1-4 of DoD as well as many of the last six years of EF! AU' s for details of these actions.

Ashton Court!

In early March this year a camp was set up at Ashton Court in Bristol to stop its imminent destruction by the Australian mining multinational Pioneer. Pioneer intend to expand into the ecologically important Top Park Field, a wildflower meadow, and translocate the topsoil to a rye grass filled field nearby. Translocation of topsoil has been tried before and has failed consistently.

Actions over the last two years have ranged from illegal marches, which brought Bristol town centre to a standstill, to regular blockades at the site. In August last year a tripod blocked the entrance at 6am while activists covered conveyor belts inside. In September the security thought they would outwit protesters by parking their landrover in the entrance so we could not put up a tripod. Five people just locked on beneath the landrover instead and it took six hours to remove them. The site could not then commence work anyway as pixies had trashed the machines the night before.November saw a mass trespass and cricket game in the quarry. A blockade followed the next day while simultaneously activists blockaded the entrance to Pioneer's St.Phillips Marsh site. On top of this those dastardly pixies were out again causing havoc. In December activists travelled to London to pay a visit to Pioneer Aggregate's Head Office. They managed to occupy the boardroom and hassle the Managing Director no end.

Everyone is welcome and needed at the camp so Tel. 0117 9420129 or 0117 9393093 for directions and come down and take part in the resistance! If you can't come down do a solidarity action at your nearest Pioneer Site - we'll tell you where they are.

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Victory at Teigngrace

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The most amazing aspect of Teigngrace was local involvement. Above, a class of secondary school children are given an introduction to campaigning. Pictured also is the 'mobile office project' van with phones, computers and files. With the office on site the division between camp and office is broken down.

On July 17, 1997, protesters occupied a site at Teigngrace, South Devon, that was under threat from ball clay quarry giant Watts, Blake and Bearne (WBB). The expansion scheme involved the destruction of 120 acres of flood meadow and the re-routing of a mile length of two rivers, the Teign and Bovey. The ball clay would then be extracted, exported and used in the manufacture of toilets, washbasins and tiles.

Unlike the majority of other development schemes that have been opposed, no Public Inquiry had ever been held when the site was occupied. The scheme was set to go ahead after approval by Devon County Council, despite opposition by the vast majority of local residents, the Environment Agency, English Nature and many others. Approval was given without the consent of any of the governmental advisory bodies for the environment, thus making them purposeless. This is a common occurrence in an inadequate planning system where applications are often approved simply to save money. If a development is refused permission, a costly Public Inquiry will automatically be held on appeal. Companies can also legally bribe Councils through 'planning gain', meaning they make investments into the infrastructure to compensate for any damage done.

The scale of local opposition soon became apparent when a hastily thrown together route walk was held, with an expected turnout of 100 people. On the day, over 1000 people came to show their support for the protesters.

Campaigners under the banner of Anti-Quarry Action (AQUA), a coalition of villagers and activists, demanded that John Prescott [the Environment Minister] call the scheme in for a Public Inquiry. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) put the scheme on hold pending its decision. After much debate, it was decided that the camps would be taken down should an Inquiry be held.

Work on the site was oriented towards informing the public rather than preparing for an eviction. Every day villagers and activists were out on the streets of local towns leafleting and getting pro-forma letters to Prescott signed. The lack of a 'doomed to get evicted' feeling on site helped keep up morale, and the presence of the mobile office as a part of the site rather than a separate entity kept people informed from day to day.

It was a very pro-active campaign, with a rally held in a nearby town and a walk from Devon to London taking 12 days to cover 242 miles. The walkers were met in London by other campaigners who went to the DETR to hand a letter to Prescott.

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Despite two weeks' notice, the Department refused the weary campaigners' request to see a minister. Under a heavy police presence,a civil servant was sent out to meet them. Many of the lifelong law-abiding villagers were furious and willing to storm the building, but after much debate the letter was presented.

The next day, activists outraged at the Ministry's arrogance returned to the building and dropped a banner from a canopy above the doors to once again highlight the issue.

This seemed to be the final straw for the Government, and two days later, on October 14, the scheme was called in. The months of what had essentially been a PR war with a multi-national company had paid off.

Protesters kept their word and took the camps down. Some stayed on to fight the Public Inquiry, which is yet to be held.

Time will tell if this was a wise course of action, leaving the fate of a beautiful and ecologically important area in the hands of a system that has failed so many times. It was only through the actions of the campaign that the system was forced to work for us, and without the use of direct action it would have failed those it is meant to represent.

If the Public Inquiry is won, it will be a victory for the rivers Teign and Bovey, the creatures that live within them, and the villagers who live nearby, but it does not mean the so-called democratic planning process that has approved so many environmentally damaging schemes works. If it is lost, it will only prove that the system is seriously flawed. Either way, it is a victory for direct action.

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