What is Insulate Britain and why is protest group blocking the M25?

Activists branded ‘irresponsible crusties’ by the PM are committed to curtailing domestic energy waste

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 29 October 2021 09:15
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Commuter clashes with Insulate Britain protesters as arrests made

Insulate Britain, the environmental activist group, has resumed its series of roadblock protests, attempting to bring the M25 to a halt during Friday morning’s rush hour after dismissing an injunction against its activities as “bullying”.

Fourteen protesters in orange high-visibility vests again sat in the road holding banners to stop cars, buses and lorries getting by to demand action from the government to improve home insulation and cut domestic energy waste, a key contributor to the climate crisis.

The demonstration was the collective’s third of the working week after its members prevented traffic passing along the A40 into London on Wednesday.

That in turn followed the group occupying three locations across the City of London on Monday morning, when Liverpool Street, Upper Thames Street and Limehouse Causeway were all targeted to the evident frustration of drivers.

“They should know that one way or another this country will have to stop emitting carbon,” the group’s leader, Liam Norton, responded in a defiant statement.

“We can do that now in an orderly, planned way, insulating homes and preventing thousands of deaths from fuel poverty or we can wait until millions have lost their homes and are fighting for water or starving to death.”

Insulate Britain has become infamous for its “campaign of civil resistance” in recent months, which has seen its members blockade busy roads in and around the capital, from the M25 to Old Street roundabout, the Blackwall Tunnel and Wandsworth Bridge, to draw attention to perceived inaction and insincerity on green issues from Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.

Its demonstrators have risked arrest as well as their own safety to make their point and fallen foul of irate motorists on numerous occasions, often hailed with abuse by exasperated drivers and even physically dragged from roads to clear a path, with some opponents complaining of missed hospital appointments as a consequence of the campaigners’ blockades.

But the group announced on 14 October that it would be briefly pausing its activities in the run-up to the crucial Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in an open letter to Mr Johnson, announcing a 10-day cessation until 25 October in order to allow the prime minister time “to make a meaningful statement that we can trust… that your government will take the lead needed to insulate and retrofit our homes”.

The prime minister had previously dismissed Insulate Britain activists as “irresponsible crusties” during an interview with LBC and did not take the opportunity they presented, prompting the swift resumption of their protests.

“There are some people who call those individuals legitimate protesters,” he told the talk radio station. “They are not. I think they are irresponsible crusties who are basically trying to stop people going about their day’s work and doing considerable damage to the economy.”

Insulate Britain have been called worse.

ITV’s Good Morning Britain anchor Richard Madeley got into a heated debate on air with Mr Norton on 14 September and accused him of “blocking out reality” and “ignoring the reality of the individual”, telling him the group’s tactics amounted to “fascism”.

“I think you’re confused, Richard, about what that word means,” Mr Norton responded.

That would not even prove to be their most hostile interview, the Madeley grilling surpassed by an astonishing argument erupting on Talk Radio on 26 October when activist Cameron Ford was questioned on Zoom by a disgruntled Mike Graham, who attempted to take Mr Ford, a carpenter by trade, to task for hypocrisy on the basis that he relies on timber, a product of deforestation, to do his job.

The eco-spokesman dismissed this snide attack on the grounds that wood was a a regenerative material and therefore sustainable before the host blusteringly retorted that “you can grow lots of things” and cited concrete as his example.

The exchange was swiftly terminated amid a crackle of awkward silence and baffled exasperation and, unsurprisingly, immediately went viral.

Conversation between Insulate Britain spokesperson and talkRadio host gets awkward

Insulate Britain has two stated “demands” listed on its website.

The first insists the UK government “immediately promises to fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025”.

The second calls on the British state “to produce within four months a legally binding national plan to fully fund and take responsibility for the full low-energy and low-carbon whole-house retrofit, with no externalised costs, of all homes in Britain by 2030 as part of a just transition to full decarbonisation of all parts of society and the economy”.

But it is not just Conservatives and the angry drivers caught up in Insulate Britain’s demonstrations who have raised objections to their strategy.

New Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer has said that while there is a place for direct action, Insulate Britain is “not necessarily always doing it in the most constructive way”.

Transport for London was meanwhile granted a High Court injunction to stop the environmentalists from obstructing traffic on 8 October, with a spokesman saying: “This will help to protect London’s road network and everybody using it.”

Supporting the move, London mayor Sadiq Khan’s office said: “The mayor passionately believes in the right to protest, but it must always be done peacefully, safely and within the law.”

But Insulate Britain has so far stood fast, insisting its approach is both effective and justified.

“Humanity is at a pivotal crossroads: accelerated human-caused global heating is threatening to destroy human civilisation unless urgent action is taken to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” it says on its website.

“The science is not disputed and now is the time to act.”

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