Newbury climbers are `betraying friends'

Independent on Sunday 10 March 1996

Charles Arthur on fury among mountaineers at those removing road protesters for £25 an hour

FEW things worry Andy Perkins. As a climbers, he has learned to evaluate risks to life and limb to the finest degree. He's been up mountains, forged new tracks along rockfaces and been rescued from perilous situations. But one thing really does scare him now: the techniques being used to evict protesters in Newbury.

There, climbers trained in industrial rope access techniques are being employed by bailiffs to corner and immobilise protesters in the trees that lie in the path of the planned £100m bypass. «I don't like to be alarmist,» says Perkins, «but I think they are cutting corners. There's far greater degree of risk there than in pretty much any other form of rope access work. There's a considerable degree of risk that [a death] will happen.»

Perkins is a «rope access assessor» -- like a driving examiner, he explains -- and one of only 29 in the country. He has observed the techniques being used by Richard Turner Ltd (RTL) of Chesterfield, the rope access company which hired 10 people to help with the evictions. «Some of the practices there are absolutely not done in rope access work,» he says. «They are absolutely no-nos.»

He cites in particular the used of Stanley knives to cut ropes; the use of a single rope to attach people to the trees during operations; and the failure in some cases to use harnesses when lowering captured protesters from trees. One protester was taken to hospital on Thursday with a suspected broken leg after apparently being hurt when he was pulled from a tree by two loops put around his legs by bailiffs.

But for many climbers, the issues go much deeper than safety. The rope access workers at Newbury are accused not just of risking lives and limbs but of betraying their friends and the sport that has given them their craft. The accusation, often from friends among the Newbury protesters, is made with an almost religious fervour.

The veteran Welsh climber, Jim Perrin, who has helped mobilise many climbers in the protest, says: «Climbing is a religion, cult, call it what you will. We have a set of received values, in which respect for the environment is a central tenet. If people go against it, then they can expect to be disliked. We say that they are abusing climbing skills by employing them against the environment.»

Climbers in Britain have always been keen on preservation of the environment but in Newbury, they have found a new and powerful focus. In the past few weeks, many of the best-known names in British mountaineering and rock-climbing have travelled down from their strongholds in Sheffield and north Wales to make their point.

On Thursday, their efforts bore fruit when Pete Bukowski, from Sheffield, abandoned his work for RTL after finding himself trying to evict Chris Plant, a top climber and friend from his hometown. Another climber is expected to leave RTL's ranks after the weekend.

RTL offers its Newbury climbers wages of £25 per hour, with a guaranteed 10-hour day, six days a week. Perrin dismisses the objection that everyone has to earn a living. «I daresay Judas had to earn one too,» he says. «I would rather starve.»

His feelings are echoed by other top climbers who have gone to Newbury to offer support, such as Ben Moon, Jerry Moffatt, Johnny Dawes, John Redhead and Adam Wainwright.

Moon was handcuffed last Thursday after he tried to take part in the protest. «The bailiffs would have a hell of a lot of trouble getting them out of the trees without the rope access guys,» he says. «And our going down does make a difference. I spent 20 minutes talking to a guy who I know pretty well, persuading him it was wrong.»

Moon is not worried about operating 50 feet or more above ground with minimal protection, but like Perkins, Moon is shocked by the safety risks. He said: «I'm surprised there haven't been more accidents.»

Perkins says that the practices of the rope access workers should be examined by the Health and Safety Executive. But the HSE says that it already has people observing the site and that the rules advocated by Perkins apply to buildings, not forests.

Richard Turner, the head of RTL, described the suggestions that safety procedures were not being adhered to as «sour grapes». «We have taken hundreds of protesters out of the trees without any difficulty,» he said.

«There has not been a failure to use safety harnesses. We have used improvised harnesses. Some of the protesters are genuine people but some are violent hooligans who just want to cause trouble.»