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