Sussex vs shale

What happens when talk of ‘exploratory drilling’ comes to a pretty corner of West Sussex

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

Darkness was gathering as the villagers trooped down Church Road to the Red Lion, ducking their heads under the doorframe. Trade was brisk for a Monday. The landlady was busy: pulling pints, cracking jokes and assigning tables. Excitement was in the air. Most customers had come from a packed meeting at the village hall, called to organise opposition to a proposed shale exploration a mile beyond the village. A campaign was afoot, and Fernhurst,West Sussex, was exhilarated by the novelty of defiance.

Fernhurst is a prosperous district in the newly created South Downs National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty with an important cultural heritage. Alfred Lord Tennyson lived on Black Down Hill above the valley in which Fernhurst rests. He wrote to General Hamley in his prologue to ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade’, ‘You came and looked and loved the view, long known and loved by me, Green Sussex fading into blue with one grey glimpse of sea.’ Sir Hubert Parry scored some of the music to Jerusalem in nearby Linchmere. London is 50 minutes away by rail, and the broadband has been upgraded, attracting wealthy commuters and their families. Many stay on into retirement, after the children have fled for the thrills of town.

Linchmere is a mile or so from where Celtique Energie proposes an exploratory drilling operation. Substantial shale fields are believed to lie under the Home Counties. How large is anyone’s guess. Fernhurst is expected to yield oil if Celtique is allowed to drill 8,600 feet down. If tests suggest that the well is commercially viable, then the company ‘may wish to explore these zones further and undertake hydraulic fracturing’ — fracking — subject to another planning application.

The prospect of fracking is what has unsettled Fernhurst. Towers burning off excess gas and oil wouldn’t fit in with Tennyson’s vision of ‘Green Sussex fading into blue’. Beyond that, there is a terror of toxic and radioactive leaks and long-term pollution of aquifers. Marcus Adams, leader of the Frack Free Fernhurst campaign group, told me, ‘I find it extraordinary that the government allows companies to use this fracking technology when we don’t properly understand it.’ Adams is no environmentalist, merely an ordinary if concerned bloke who has lived in the area for many years. He is convinced that permission to explore will lead to permission to frack, so he and some likeminded neighbours want to thwart Celtique’s initial proposal.

The meeting at the village hall was smartly run. Adams rabble-roused, while residents John and Caroline provided balance. These amateurs were candid about their limitations but honest with their findings. They discounted the risk of earthquakes. Noise, light and air pollution are the campaign’s strongest objections. Historic (and increasingly rare) hedgerows will have to be destroyed to widen lanes for heavy trucks and tankers. John showed a short video of a working site in rural America. It was pandemonium, both on screen and in the hall. The woman sitting next to me said, ‘Even if only half of this is true, it would wreck this place.’

This place is, of course, a national park, and the park authority’s planning regime is usually absurdly strict. I’ve heard of people applying to put a climbing frame in their back garden who were rejected because it might have impeded the view of walkers on a footpath in some adjacent woods. New commercial premises must be in keeping with the surroundings. A couple of ramshackle barns were recently converted into a candle factory, but only on the condition that any passing rambler would mistake them for livestock barns.

So why are drilling licences even available here? Conversation at the Red Lion spat with venom. How could the national parks authorities allow the countryside to be desecrated? But beneath the anger there was anxiety: perhaps the parks are powerless? The worry is that Britain’s energy crisis is thought to be so serious that government may lean on the park to approve drilling.

Local politicians aren’t doing much to quell those fears. Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie had to be begged to meet the parish council leader. Tyrie, though, escapes lightly compared with the Conservative councillor Michael Brown. He signed a petition against Celtique’s proposals at a recent meeting of the parish council, but removed his name after realising his error. Brown then failed to respond to an invitation to attend the village hall meeting (admittedly at short notice), or answer emails. Some constituents have gained the impression that Brown has sided with the energy company. I offered him the chance to respond to these criticisms but he remained the model of impartiality. He said that he did not sign petitions relating to his electoral division. He will study the proposals carefully and with interest, adding that he had spoken to constituents who are ‘positively in favour of the Celtique proposals’.

Brown’s less guarded private correspondence with some of his constituents reveals that he believes there are ‘economic benefits to be derived from oil and gas deposits’. Yes, but benefits for whom? The standard sales patter promises more jobs, etc. But once the well is dug there is little further call for local workers. Landowners who lease ground to energy companies will receive generous payouts, but those will pale in comparison with the value of extracted oil and gas. George Osborne has announced that companies should pay ‘at least £100,000’ to the communities in which they drill. That may sound generous; but in an area where house prices have increased in some cases by 500 per cent over 20 years, it is trifling.

The mad rise in prices is the result of a government-engineered debt bubble and stringent planning laws. And the government may reap what it sowed. Homeowners would be mad not to strive to ensure that their property maintains its value. As one resident put it, ‘I have worked hard all my life to buy the house that I now have and I risk losing a substantial part of its value if this proposal goes ahead.’

No wonder Adams and co. are making common cause with similarly disaffected people and communities across the shale-rich Home Counties and the north. ‘I’m not a nimby any more,’ Adams tells me, ‘I don’t want this to happen in anyone’s back garden.’ Westminster beware: there’s no such thing as a safe seat when the provinces are in this mood.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

David Blackburn,  is The Spectator’s online comment and books editor

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • MagnaCharter

    Sources from within the fracking industry have told the anti-fracking movement that councillors are being, or will be approached with what are described in the particular fracking company’s literature as either “Community benefits” or, (and this is a direct quote) “bribes?”. This will be alongside private presentations to County Councillors emphasising the positives and misrepresenting the negatives. They are trying to go over the heads of ordinary people and traduce traditions of local democracy for many years to come, and will accompany forthcoming legislation to completely discount local objections through a revision of the planning laws that underscore England’s natural beauty. There is also the implication that a fix has already been achieved with the Environment Agency to fastrack fracking in your land. ‘Into the valley of death…’

  • Yvonne Gordon

    First the place is scattered with wind farms, which appear to be useless as they can only work when conditions are right. Now this! I really hate the idea that we should just experiment with this technology in our precious and beautiful country. There have been horror stories coming out of the USA for years about polluted water etc. Surely it can’t be beyond our collective imagination to find a solution without all this damage?

  • Robsibanks

    My view on this is that Malthus’ theories in respect of food supply will one day ring true although in respect of energy supply shortages. The UK cannot support circa 70 million inhabitants in a sustainable manner.

  • dave brooker

    The anti frackers are just a vocal minority, mainly retired incomers who have forced up the price of homes for locals, many in Fernhurst are hoping that the oil exploration will bring much needed jobs and local services, and are keen for it to happen.

    • prusarn

      The anti-frackers are not a minority. I haven’t met anyone in Fernhurst who are is in favour of it. It has already affected house sales in the area. There won’t be any local jobs beyond the initial phase of the operation. As for the £100,000 offered to the village, it is nothing more than an insult. In case you hadn’t noticed Mr Brooker, house prices in the south of England are generally quite high, not just in Fernhurst. You obviously have a low opinion of retired people. Would you like to tell us who these local people are, who welcome this fracking?

      • dave brooker

        See, all you people care about is keeping property prices high – never mind the jobs this will bring and that energy prices will fall.

        Greedy nimbys footstamping, innit.

        Plenty of everyday people in Fernhurst welcome the prospect of oil and gas, I’ve spoken to several land owners towards Lickfold who are keen to get a well on their land,

        The nimby retired people who just want a biscuit tin village may be up in arms, but genuine locals of working age see this as a new start with the prospect of some real jobs.

        • DestroyTheWorld

          “but genuine locals of working age see this as a new start with the prospect of some real jobs.”

          That’s just pure bollocks.

          • dave brooker

            Do you live here?


            The people doing the most amount of whinging are outsiders, despite the £7m houses there are still many long term unemployed here who need proper jobs, not just gardening for rich people and trolley pushing at Liphook Sainsburys…

          • DestroyTheWorld

            I live in another fracking area and will fight it even though I don’t own my back yard. It’s kind of questionable whether it will create jobs anyway. I doubt they’ll be many for locals.

          • dave brooker

            Who else will do the work?

            Each site is a massive investment, hard to see them not leading to many more jobs.

            Why are you fighting?

          • Jack

            Why do you assume locals will get jobs?

        • Peter

          Fracking will not reduce prices according to the fracking minister (and Caudrilla director) Lord Browne. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/29/browne-fracking-not-reduce-uk-gas-prices-shale-energy-bills

        • Jack

          Regardless of what is to come, energy prices won’t fall.

  • John Selfish

    How can this be allowed to happen?

    This area is home to many retired people who have moved to find peace and quiet, this will decimate house prices, and ruin things for us.

    If people have the money to move to a village like this why should they have to put up with noisy smelly farming and industrial activities?

    Young people should move to cities and leave the countryside for the retired and wealthy who can afford it and look after it properly and deserve it.

    • DestroyTheWorld

      When you conservatives stop artificially inflating house prices with your Help to Buy and FLS schemes to preserve your imaginary wealth us young people will be able to afford houses because the prices will fall. When we can eventually afford them we won’t want to live in the middle of a gas works that you lot funnel the profits from to buy more Buy To Lets.

  • moonrakin

    “It has already affected house sales in the area” sheesh … will you people nip down the road and check out Sandbanks near Poole – on the Wytch Farm oilfield. Scaremongering twits is all I can say – retired or not – kindly do a bit of actual research before gobbing off.

    Yyvette Gordon – I suggest you acquaint yourself with Frack Nation before repeating the scaremongering lies pumped out by Josh Fox and his eco-nut greenies who are funded by some very, very unpleasant people.

    Most of you antis are so being had – and that’s a fact.

    • Peter

      Sandbanks is not Fracked, you are not comparing like-for-like.

      • moonrakin

        So there have been no down-hole production enhancement procedures applied there ? – right-oh…

        love the capital F on Fracked.

        • Peter

          Wytch Farm is not Fracked, it is a conventional oil field. It used to be a BP operation, but is now owned by Parenco. As the oil is removed from the reservoir this is replaced with seawater from a submersible pump. This ensures the stability of the structure holding the reservoir, and, as oil floats on water, also aids the pumping process. http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/Oil-South-Bibliography.htm#Perenco

          • AlecM

            It has also been fracced.

      • AlecM

        Yes it is.

  • itdoesntaddup

    I wonder where Fernhurst residents guess their nearest oil well is? It would be an interesting question to poll them on. Many would likely guess the North Sea. A few clever ones might remember there are some Wytch Farm wells in the English Channel they probably think are drilled from offshore platforms – not the reality of drilled from land, right under the much more expensive than Fernhurst houses on Sandbanks, anything up to 11 kilometres away from the drill site – but Dorset must seem a long way to them.

    As they head to their yachts or the Festival at Chichester, they remain doubtless unaware that they pass one not ten miles down the road, right in the heart of the South Downs AONB. OK, the oil industry cheated – it’s down nearly a mile of track, hidden by woodlands and folds in the hills, so it isn’t too easy to spot.

    Not 20 miles away from the village is another also in the AONB, doubtless passed by the Greens visiting from Brighton to feed their paranoia. The site immediately abuts the main road. You can “drive” round most of it in google streetview. Even from the elevated camera positions you only really spot the nodding donkeys as you pass the gate.

    • dave brooker

      Don’t put the nimbys off, we need them to talk house prices down, right now so many locals simply can’t afford to live here. The wealthy interlopers on Fernhurst Parish Council even wanted to get rid of the school to make way for more houses.

      In this part of the country there has been a massive influx of wealthy elderly people, who have forced up the price of homes, often farms that were producing food and employing people are now just houses for the rich…

      • John Selfish

        The school is a nightmare in the mornings and afternoons, cars parked all up the main road, there’s no place for an ugly school in a villiage like Fernhurst, why was it ever allowed?

        The industrial estate is ugly too, there’s no place for schools or industry in a villiage like this.

  • caycepollard

    Let the people who vote for fracking have the cheap gas and let the people who vote against it have the expensive gas (while it lasts). What’s the problem?

  • a resident

    Where is the reasoned argument?
    The comments below seem to be reactionary tosh.
    It is possibly a question of trust? Once the get the fracking go ahead, as we all secretly think they will, there will be no going back.
    Ive heard the job creation/nimby arguments so many times it bores me.
    Are you suggesting that fracking can be carried out without any thought for the placement of the site?
    What are you prepared to trade?

    • itdoesntaddup

      You can be sure there will be a lot of though on placement of the site. Have you found the oil wells I mentioned above yet?

    • dave brooker

      1 There’s no plans to do any fracking, the oil company wants to do a well to see what’s down there.

      2 It’s in Robins woods well away from the road and public view.

      3 *If* there is oil down there and over a wide area of the southdowns, then there will significant numbers of jobs created.

      4 What will be traded?

      5 What difference will it make to anyone’s lives?

  • itdoesntaddup

    Here’s what the fuss is about:


    It should be noted that the locals have still to agree what will happen to the former ICI/Sygenta site that used to employ around 500 in agrichemical research: it was closed and sold off in 2001. Plans to build high density housing do not seem popular:


    • dave brooker

      Southdowns National Park will decided what happens at Sygenta, expect lots of new homes, the Parish Council wanted to get rid of the school and are keen to get rid of the industrial estate (10 more houses), Fernhurst will be all houses and no local facilities, a London suburb no where near London…

  • Wll

    What people need to ask themselves here is, if only 50% MAX of the toxic frack fluid has ever been recovered in the entire history of any fracking operation, where does all those millions of gallons of waste go?

    Well, for those with half a brain cell, and those who have actually been bothered to research this properly, it’s… IN YOUR WATER SUPPLY!!

    Every single mass fracking operation has contaminated the local water table, FACT!

    So… enjoy all the toxic fluid and methane through your taps. And all those extra jobs, they’ll probably be for construction workers repairing buildings after all the seismic events from drilling, like in Blackpool.

  • Donna_Baylis

    Do yourself a favour and take some time to learn from the USA. They have been horizontal fracking for almost a decade and are starting to see the cost/benefit. The costs are high — perhaps higher than the benefits. Don’t let anyone make the decision for you, your children and grandchildren.