n Thursday morning, the day after being released from prison, three environmental activists who became the first people to be jailed for an anti-fracking protest in the UK returned to the Preston New Road fracking site near Blackpool.
Simon Roscoe Blevins, 26, Richard Roberts, 36, and Richard Loizou, 31, arrived to a hero’s welcome from around 40 protesters gathered there. “It’s helped so much while we’ve been in prison to receive all of your letters and to know there is so much support,” Loizou said to the crowd. Blevins said: “We had letters and pictures covering all of our walls, stuck there with toothpaste because that’s all we had.”
Last month Blevins, a soil scientist from Sheffield, and Roberts, a piano restorer from London, were sentenced to 16 months in prison, and Loizou, a teacher from Devon, got 15 months, after the three were convicted by a jury at Preston crown court of causing a public nuisance.
The men were prosecuted for taking part in a protest in July last year in which they climbed on to the cabs of trucks attempting to carry drilling equipment into the Preston New Road site and camped there for three days.
The site has been a focal point for protests since October 2016, when the government overturned a decision by Lancashire county council and gave the energy firm Cuadrilla consent to extract shale gas at two wells on the site.
The sentences caused outrage among environmental campaigners, human rights groups and politicians. Friends of the Earth and Liberty assisted Kirsty Brimelow QC, the head of the human rights team at Doughty Street Chambers, in appealing against the sentences, warning that the case could have a chilling effect on future protests.
At around 12.45pm on Wednesday the high court ruled that the prison terms were “manifestly excessive”. Just over three hours later the men stepped out into the sunlight from HMP Preston after three weeks inside.
“Everyone we met [in jail] was lovely and really supportive and just thought it was really funny that we’d been sent to prison,” Blevins told the Guardian. “They were like: ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.’”
He said prison had been different to what he’d expected. “Something that really struck me was that despite there being a really clear hierarchy of power between the people who were locked up and the people who had the keys, between the inmates there was a great deal of equality,” said Blevins.
“Regardless of why we were there or our backgrounds or our families, we were all there together.”
Asked why he thought they had received such long sentences, Roberts said: “There has been a couple of years of direct action here, with dedicated local campaigners blocking this site and stopping deliveries as much as possible, and they would usually get a fine or a conditional discharge.
“I think that Lancashire police and the crown prosecution service pulled out this ancient law of public nuisance [a common law offence with a maximum penalty of life in prison] because they wanted the penalties to be higher and to issue a deterrent prison sentence.”
The men have been released on conditional discharge, so if they reoffend over the next two years they can be resentenced for their initial conviction, but all three are determined to continue to help the campaign in ways other than taking part in direct action.
“In a lot of ways this whole process has been an amazing learning curve for all of us,” said Blevins. “We know a lot more about the courts and the legal system. We know what we need to do if we want a fair trial and the kind of information that we need to be gathering from the start.”
On Monday Cuadrilla started fracking at the Lancashire site, despite attempts by protesters to blockade the entrance. However, like the others, Loizou was still confident fracking could be stopped in the UK.
“I think this is just the beginning of something really big with regards to resistance to fossil fuels and resistance to injustice,” he said. “I think our imprisonment and Cuadrilla’s actions on Preston New Road have galvanised the environmentalist movement into action.”
Roberts agreed. “We learned at school in the 1990s in GCSE geography about the impact that burning fossil fuels would have on the rest of the world and on future generations,” he said. “And it’s been so frustrating to get to 2018 and not see concerted action from government on this.
“We’ve pursued democratic means, organised petitions and all of that, for decades, and now it’s only appropriate that we escalate and take direct action to stop the fossil fuel industries. We will continue to take action until we see change.”