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High Court allows eviction of fracking protestors, but council must find "appropriate" alternative space

The High Court has granted a possession order to West Sussex County Council, allowing it to remove anti-fracking protestors from where they have camped alongside a busy main road.

However, the judge has instructed the Council to work with the protestors and police to find a suitable alternative site for their activities after concerns were raised that land provided for that purpose was unsafe and not large enough for long-term occupation. The court had previously adjourned the proceedings after finding that the council had not taken the protestors' rights to freedom of expression and assembly into account when making their initial application.

The protestors have been at the site near Balcombe, where energy firm Cuadrilla had been carrying out exploratory drilling linked to shale gas deposits in the area, since July. The bulk of them left after the firm vacated the site when its planning permission expired on 28 September, but others have said that they will stay until a new planning application submitted by the firm has been decided on.

Property dispute resolution expert Rebecca Jones of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the ruling was further confirmation that the rights of protestors under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) would not normally give protestors the right to set up a camp and thereby exclusively occupy an area of land

"What is interesting in this case is that West Sussex County Council had provided an alternative fenced site for the protestors," she said. "However, the judge raised concerns about the suitability of the land in relation to size, location and suitability in poor weather."

"The judge granted the order for possession over the verge but made it a condition of the order that the local authority had to provide a suitable alternative site on its own land, sizeable enough for the protestors who may remain there for hours during the day but not overnight. He also added that the current land, which was prone to flooding , should be relocated to more appropriate ground but should remain  situated as close the Cuadrilla site entrance as possible," she said.

"Interestingly, the judge required that the local authority should consult with the protestors, as well as the police, to come to an agreement as to the suitable new location," she said. "The judge suggested that the discussion should take place with the protestors within 24 hours. In a statement on its website, West Sussex County Council said that it would take "an early decision" about enforcing the order. According to the BBC, discussions have already begun.

"We would remind people that this action is only being taken in the interests of safety for all road users, including the demonstrators," the statement said. "The B2036 is an unlit road with a 60mph limit. Vehicle speeds have been increasing since the main protest camp ended, and, with darker nights and the change in weather, the dangers to safety have increased."

"The County Council has provided a designated area where people can gather should they want to continue their protest, but camping will not be permitted. This is designed to strike a careful balance between maintaining road safety and people's right to demonstrate peacefully. We will, following comments by the judge, look at the suitability and siting of this area to see if it can be improved," the statement said.

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