Is middle England prepared to be arrested to stop the motherfrackers? Only if we are will we drive them out.

Restrictions on fracking reveal an abrupt change of ministers’ tune
Fracking protestersFracking protesters. (Photo: Christopher Pledger)
At long last ministers seem to have realised what has been blindingly obvious for more than two and a half years – that fracking is politically toxic in Tory and Lib Dem heartlands. Their stance, and rhetoric, is changing as the general election approaches, amid predictable – and long predicted – concern on their backbenches.

Monday’s sudden declaration that it will be banned from National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) except in “exceptional circumstances” is the first sign that the Government is rowing back from its aggressive commitment to “go all out for shale” in any circumstances. If fully implemented, the announcement – which the Government admits has been prompted by overwhelmingly resistance to its approach – could have a considerable effect on the fledgling industry, which seems privately shocked by the abrupt change in tone.

For a start, it would effectively rule out fracking over large areas of land, even as the Government has just opened up half of Britain for exploration to shale oil and gas. National Parks cover about 10 per cent of Britain, AONBs a further 9.6 per cent of England and Wales. They also cover key regions where the industry had planned to operate including the South Downs, the Weald of Kent and the North Yorkshire Moors.

Indeed, had the new provision been in place earlier, the fracas in Balcombe, which has so far defined the battle over the technology, would almost certainly have never taken place, for the West Sussex village lies in an AONB. The second most controversial site in the country, at Fernhurst in the same county, would also have been unlikely to come up, as it lies within the South Downs National Park; a decision on it, due in September, will be a defining test of the new approach, especially as the national park authority appears to be concerned that fracking there could contaminate drinking water. Indeed – if the new policy is strictly enforced – much of the Weald Basin, long seen as the second most promising area for fracking in the country after the North West will be off limits.

This is likely to increase the tendency of the industry, as reported in my Daily Telegraph column at the weekend, to move out of the South East in the face of vigorous local opposition and disappointing prospects. Two thirds of the people of Sussex now oppose fracking and drilling at a third site, near the village of Wisborough Green, was unanimously rejected by the planning committee of the West Sussex County Council last week. 

And a report by the British Geological Survey this month concluded that the region contains no significant reserves of shale gas and only limited ones of shale oil – which may be difficult to exploit because the clay-rich rock is particularly hard to fracture and the oil is expected to be thick, and thus not likely to flow easily.

Not long ago, the then energy minister Michael Fallon was boasting that the oil and gas was “right there” in the South East and that fracking would take place over large areas of “Dorset, all the way along Hampshire. Sussex, East Sussex, West Sussex, all the way perhaps a bit into Surrey and even into my county of Kent”. It does not look like that now.
But it has been politics, rather than physical reality, which has mainly forced the change of tack. MPs for affected areas have been getting increasingly edgy. Former Minister Nick Herbert came out against the Wisborough Green proposal last week, on the grounds that the area must not become a “carelessly industrialised landscape.”

The constituencies of more than three quarters of the members of the Cabinet (but not David Cameron) are in the areas that have just been opened up for exploration as are, more crucially, 31 of the 40 top target seats in the Tories’ General Election Strategy. A ComRes poll in marginal constituencies showed that just 15 per cent of prospective Conservative voters see fracking as a top energy priority, compared to 43 per cent who back developing new renewable sources of energy. (The priorities of UKIP prospects are even more at odds with the party leadership, with 52 per cent favouring renewables, and only 11 per cent shale oil and gas.)

At least 130 local groups have sprung up to fight fracking around the country. Yesterday the new energy minister, Matthew Hancock, was unable to name a single community “welcoming the frackers in” when challenged to do so. And Lord Howell, a former energy secretary – and George Osborne’s father-in-law has warned that “every time ministers open their mouths to claim fracking must start everywhere in Britain, not just in carefully selected and remote (derelict) areas, they lose thousands of Tory votes”. No wonder ministers, so recently so aggressively promoting fracking, are now stressing that theirs is to be a “sensitive” and “careful” approach.

The Government admits moreover that the reaction to its plans to expand fracking over half the country has been overwhelmingly hostile. Even Public Health England, part of its own Department of Health has accused it of failing to address all the “potentially significant negative environmental and subsequent health impacts that shale gas extraction could have on groundwater if operations are not properly run and regulated.” And its wildlife and countryside agency, Natural England – not noted for it’s recent outspokenness – objected on the basis that no assessment had been made on how fracking would affect key habitats protected under EU directives.

Whether the change of tack on National Parks and AONBs will do as much as the government hopes to mute the growing opposition is doubtful. Though some environmental groups – like the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England – have welcomed it, others – such as Greenpeace – have denounced it as a “sham”, and indeed it does not add much to present planning guidance. Nevertheless the change in tone is significant: there had seemed to be every sign that the existing safeguards were going to be overridden. The proof, one way or the other, will lie in how it works out in practice.

More crucially, it might concentrate fracking nearer to where people live, since National Parks and AONBs are relatively sparsely populated, and thus raise even more opposition from residents; indeed the cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield are among the areas that have just been opened for exploration. 

This is important since it is local people, rather than the professional protesters, who really count. Hardline greens will oppose the practice in any case, but are only likely to be able to change government policy when they are able to make common cause with the people of middle England.

The Tap Blog is a collective of like-minded researchers and writers who’ve joined forces to distribute information and voice opinions avoided by the world’s media.

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