Merseyside Police and local residents protect against attempts by openeach to install new ultrafast broadband equipment in Southport

Merseyside Police has been highly praised for its handling of poles protests in Southport but concern has been raised over citing trades union legislation. 

Officers reportedly told groups of mainly middle-aged and elderly local residents that they would intervene if the protestors impeded Openreach workers under the Trades Union Act of 1992 .

Southport councillor Greg Myers was also present and has now written to the Chief Constable raising concerns and seeking clarification over use of the legislation. 

He said: “I have little but praise for the sensible and sensitive way Merseyside Police has handled the protests so far. Issues have arisen though, some through no fault of their own, which need clarification.

“Officers cited the act as part of the protests last week. However, there are legitimate questions over whether legislation designed for industrial unrest over 30 years ago is appropriate to use today on middle-aged and elderly residents peacefully and cheerfully protesting in their own streets.

“In my own ward, it was part of the background behind Openreach putting up the only pole they managed in last week’s scheduled works. Officers had been talking of its potential use beforehand but in response to my letter I’ve now been assured they were acting under Highways Act obstruction rules when they intervened.

“This allowed Openreach to manhandle a pole into position and secure it with protestors all around, however, it has now come to light that this was in breach of Openreach’s risk assessment for the site work. While Merseyside Police were completely unaware of this, Openreach was not.

“The next day officers were going to employ trades union legislation to move residents when I spoke to them querying the use of it and a seemingly harder line being taken than the day previous.

“After requests for the sergeant in charge to refer upwards, they kindly did so. I’ve now been informed that the crux consideration for using the legislation then centred around intimidation, or in this case the lack of it, and so the advice came back to hold off.

“Which was fortunate, as when council Highways Officers attended the scene and saw what was going on again, they stopped proceedings as Openreach was failing to meet safety requirements once more.

“This raises further potential issues with the use of that Act or indeed other legislation  – as how can you say that residents should not be interfering with work when that work itself is not permitted or in breach of safety?

“It also raises real questions over the information police officers are receiving from Openreach. I believe it has unfairly put the police in a very difficult situation.

“Merseyside Police has accepted in its reply to me that officers were not aware of the safety issues when they stepped in to enable the solitary pole going up last week but I now understand that such intervention will not be happening again unless safety criteria are met.

“I’ve also been reassured that as long as the protests remain peaceful and there is no later legal intervention requiring otherwise, the policing will proceed in the manner it has to date.

“Both the residents and police deserve a lot of credit for the way the protests have proceeded peacefully and cheerfully with no arrests and I extended my thanks to Chief Constable Serena Kennedy for the way her officers have dealt with the situation so far.

“Council officers too deserve credit for taking Openreach to task over safety. One Highways Officer facing down severe pressure from the company’s staff on site by informing them that he worked for the residents of Sefton, not Openreach. It has work planned again over the coming days but needs to reconsider its position.” 

“Openreach has experienced repeated delays, seen its tactics, approach and safety record being held up to the light and found severely wanting, and experienced a PR nightmare – all because they have tried to put cost-cutting before the local community. It needs to stop.” 

An Openreach spokesperson said:  “Bringing ultrafast broadband to Southport will create huge benefits for families and businesses in the area for decades to come, as well as a welcome boost to the local economy.

“Wherever possible we use existing networks to build our broadband upgrades but in Southport cables are mainly buried directly in the ground. The scale and cost of civil engineering to install new underground ducts throughout the area just isn’t viable and would involve months of road closures and disruptions.

“We know that people feel strongly about poles and understand why. Our local team has engaged extensively with local residents, and also explored every possible option for the build.

“Southport has one of the lowest percentages of full fibre broadband coverage in the UK and the existing copper network there is increasingly unreliable, it also takes longer to repair because of the way it was buried historically, so to halt this upgrade would deprive thousands of other local people who want the new technology, both in Southport and surrounding communities.

“We’ve communicated our decision to continue the build by using our existing network wherever possible and positioning any new poles sensitively.”

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