POLICE STATE ?

Around mid-morning of last Tuesday we received a telephone call from Nick Graham at Higher Fonstone Farm near Canworthy Water in North Cornwall.  He explained that a dispute with SW Water had led to a police request to search his premises for firearms, and that he had been trying without success to arrange for a solicitor to be present at 2 pm when a police sergeant and two firearms officers were due to arrive.  He was very concerned about Didi who was not eating and was in no state to cope with such an intrusion into their privacy.  He asked if I would go over to provide moral support and to act as a witness to events, which I agreed to do.

Rosie decided to accompany me.  We arrived in good time, around 1.40 pm to find Nick waiting at the remotely-operated steel gates that have barred the farm entrance since their traumatic FMD experience.  He let us in to join Didi at the farmhouse, where they outlined how this extraordinary situation had developed.  SW Water were working on an old water main that ran under the road outside their farm entrance, and had informed Nick and Didi that it was necessary to dig a trench across two of their fields adjoining the road in order to locate and make connections to a second water pipe that lay beneath.  This would entail removal of some of the young trees that have replaced their slaughtered livestock.  Experience with MAFF/DEFRA had taught Nick and Didi to question exactly what was going on and to deny access until they understood the situation.

A map was sent showing the claimed line of the water pipe, but this was years out-of-date and failed to show that the roadside hedge had been removed and rebuilt at a new position several yards further back into the field, to improve visibility for road traffic at the nearby bend.  The water pipe almost certainly now lay on the road side of the field boundary, beneath the wide grass verge that had been created by this change.  Heavy-handed visits and correspondence from SW Water further inflamed the situation.  A disgruntled official reported to the police that an implied threat of firearms had been made.  In fact the only gun on the farm is a low-powered airgun owned by their son and properly used through a local shooting club.  Didi's distressed state could not cope with the situation and she had sunk to a low ebb without eating for several days. 

The police sergeant telephoned as we sat in the kitchen hearing all this.  Arrangements had changed and they could not arrive until later in the afternoon, but could not commit to a time.  Nick asked what would happen if he refused voluntary access and was told that a search warrant would be obtained.  I spoke to the sergeant in an attempt to clarify the situation, pointing out that I had been told that SW Water had since withdrawn their complaint and had confirmed that no firearm threat was made.  He was unable to discuss details but said that even though the complaint had been withdrawn, the decision to search the premises was out of his hands and could not now be called off.  He was concerned to keep the situation as low-key as possible and would ring again shortly before they arrived.

We made the best of the waiting time, enjoying a tour of the outbuildings and newly-planted woodlands that now cover much of the farm since their decision not to restock.  It was a lovely sunny afternoon yet Didi was visibly anguished.  We decided on a plan; Rosie would drive Didi back to our home and collect their son Sam at the end of the school day.  Thankfully, Didi agreed (she suffers from agrophobia and rarely leaves the farm).  I would remain on the farm with Nick.  The police rang to announce their arrival in twenty minutes, so the ladies drove off while Nick lit a small bonfire of rubbish for something to do.  He became uncertain of his position and rang a solicitor for advice; this was to refuse voluntary access and ask the police to exercise their warrant.

The police rang again and were approaching the farm entrance.  It was made clear to Nick that he must not attempt to bring the airgun to the gate, it must be left where it lay for the police to locate upon entry.  It was also made clear that neither of us must be holding anything in our hands that could be misconstrued as we approached the gate.  We rounded the corner of a barn to approach the gate from the farm side.  Spread across the width of the lane were five officers in black anti-stab vests with bulging pockets, one plain clothes man carrying a kit-bag, with more officers vaguely there in the backgound behind a large white van.  There was a tense atmosphere and hands were held poised by vest pockets.

As we walked slowly to the gate, the full gravity of the situation began to dawn on us.  These officers were not only armed, they were mentally prepared to fire.

We walked right to the gate and somewhat awkward greetings were exchanged.  The sergeant whom Nick had dealt with by telephone stepped forward to request access.  Nick asked if they had a search warrant and was told that one was following in another car, to arrive in ten minutes time.  We stepped a few paces back from the gate to discuss the situation.  Nick was visibly shaking by this time (I probably was too) but he was terribly unhappy about granting voluntary access after their experience during FMD.  We talked it through, he made his decision and we walked back to the gate together.  Nick told the police he would wait for the warrant to arrive and would expect them to exercise their legal powers at that point.  They agreed to wait at the gate, whereupon we retired to the farmhouse kitchen again.

It was well over half-an-hour before the gate intercom signalled that the warrant had arrived.  For a second time, we walked empty-handed to the gate, carefully watched by armed police.  Nick was handed the search warrant through the gate and read it slowly.  I read the phrase "suspected illegal firearm" over his shoulder.  At length the sergeant requested permission to enter and Nick agreed.  The gates swung open.  We were asked to step outside the gates and were searched.  The sergeant explained that five officers would enter the premises accompanied by a sniffer dog to search for firearms.  Their names and numbers were all recorded on the search warrant as a record.  Nick told them where the airgun was located and they disappeared from view into the house and outbuildings.  We were invited to wait inside the white van with tea and biscuits, accompanied by the sergeant and two constables.

After a few minutes, another officer walked down the lane and requested permission to enter the premises to assist the search team.  Nick and I looked at each other, then asked if more police were positioned out of sight on the road.  The sergeant confirmed that this was the case, with an Inspector controlling the operation from his car.  Nick asked the two constables if any police present were armed, to which they answered no, they were simply wearing standard issue anti-stab vests.  Nick climbed out of the van and walked round to the front, where the sergeant was leaning on the bonnet filling in paperwork.  Asked the same question, the sergeant confirmed that the six officers we had first seen were "covertly armed", that is, their firearms were held out of view.  The constable looked uncomfortable and explained that the search team and van had been brought in from outside the area as a TAG team (Tactical Aid Group I think he said).

Time passed and I used some of it to discuss the situation with the sergeant.  He was aware of the FMD trauma that Nick and Didi had suffered but pointed out that the original implied firearms threat was reported not by just any member of the public, but by a responsible SW Water official.  In that context, they had a duty to take the report seriously and to investigate throroughly, otherwise they would be held responsible should any harm result.  I pointed out that whatever inappropriate words may have been used in the heat of the moment and allowing for Didi's state of mind, no firearm had been produced to threaten anyone at any time, and I suggested that this level of response was completely over the top.  He replied that this was the lowest level response possible in the circumstances, and that he had been anxious to avoid "containment", which would involve surrounding the premises with armed marksmen and communicating with us via loudhailer.

After a considerable time, the search team eventually regrouped at the farm entrance.  The team leader told Nick that the airgun and ammunition were perfectly legal and would be left on the premises; however, there was one item they had found that caused concern.  We walked a few yards to an open-fronted shed where a toy sten-gun was produced from the dust and cobwebs in a corner.  This was clearly home-made from a short length of steel tube with a handle and butt welded on to give the profile of a hand-held weapon - the sort of "gun" that any young child might play with.  In all seriousness, it was suggested that this could be misconstrued in the wrong circumstances, and the request was made for this to be surrendered to the police for destruction.  Nick burst out laughing and signed his agreement.  The police had been polite and professional throughout the operation, and now left the farm, the gates closing behind them.  We walked back down to the kitchen to unwind over an!
other cup of tea.

As we drank this the telephone rang.  It was a concerned neighbour who had see the police presence up on the road.  She had seen four other police vehicles, in addition to the TAG van, and some of these additional officers were also armed.  Nick reassured her and rang off.  We discussed this and finally realised that the police had indeed come fully prepared for "containment" - an armed seige.  It seemed surreal, unbelievable, that all this could really have arisen from the incompetence of SW Water.

We drove back to Bridgerule to meet up with Rosie, Didi and Sam.  Nick had scarcely begun to outline the afternoon's events when Didi stopped him - she didn't want to hear it, this was too much to cope with, they would put the farm up for sale in the morning.  Nick agreed at once.  This they did the following day, finally driven to leave their home of eighteen years.
 
Several days after the event, I can still scarcely believe that this actually happened.  But I was there, and it did happen just as described here.  I have tried to speak by telephone with the SW Water official concerned but so far he has not returned my calls. 



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