In the recent crucial planning meeting, the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) rejected Celtique’s plans to drill in the South Downs at the small town of Fernhurst.
This is a bodyblow for the fracking industry as a whole, not just Celtique. The industry and the government are desperate to get fracking but have utterly failed to convince any community that fracking is acceptable or appropriate. The new energy minister Matthew Hancock was recently asked to name a community that welcomed fracking. His silence was deafening. This complete absence of consent is a major problem for industry and government. The various attempts to throw money at the problem have failed miserably and now trouble is brewing as communities feel increasingly ignored in the run up to the general election next May.
So many of you objected to Celtique’s plans that the South Downs website wilted under the pressure and fell over. In contrast, local campaigners showed endless resilience, and the final tally was 5,517 objections, with 11 in support. Yes, E-LEV-EN. Additionally, over 14,500 South Downs residents expressed their opposition to fracking by signing up to the Greenpeace Not For Shale legal block denying permission to frack under their homes, or to a petition calling on David Cameron to ditch his support for fracking.
Fernhurst lead the way in establishing the first Not For Shale blockade, with local residents coming together to exercise their right to deny permission for Celtique to frack under their homes. This encircled the drill site, stopping Celtique’s fracking plans. This strategy really put the wind up the industry. In response they used their lobbying gazillions to get the government to table proposals to take away your rights and gift them to frackers, a move opposed by 74% of voters. We’re looking at every avenue to fight this shredding of your democratic and legal rights, and thousands of people are joining our petition to ask their MP to oppose this astonishing frack-fix.
The planning meeting heard that the local Tory MP, Andrew Tyrie, has expressed deep concerns about an ‘industrial experiment’ at Fernhurst. His neighbour and party colleague Nick Herbert MP has also finally got the bit between his teeth on fracking, recognising that swallowing the party line on fracking could lead to an indelicate conversation with the job centre one hollow Friday morning next May. MPs are waking up to the fact that they are facing deep and vocal disquiet on their doorstep, and there are plenty of MP doorsteps up for grabs. 505 constituencies – that’s three-quarters of the country - could face being fracked.
The room was reminded that the application had been recommended for refusal by SDNPA planners. Essentially Celtique had failed to demonstrate that drilling in the South Downs National Park could be justified on the necessary grounds of exceptional circumstances and the public interest.
Local representatives gave their submissions, all opposing the application. An eloquent and passionate speech by local resident John Buchanan summed up his deep scepticism about the application neatly, ‘I have been challenged, as in Alice in Wonderland, to believe six impossible things before breakfast’.
The committee members raised deep and abiding reservations, noting the special nature of the South Downs and the area around the site at Fernhurst. One committee member noted that Celtique ‘couldn’t have picked a worse location’. Concerns were raised about a wide range of impacts: water contamination, waste water, air quality, flaring, emissions, HGV impacts, road safety, noise, and light impacting the dark skies of the South Downs.
One by one members revealed their intention to reject the application. I counted up the votes needed. Ten of the eleven committee members were in attendance, so six votes would stop Celtique. It built agonisingly slowly. We eventually got to five. Then at last we tipped over to the magic six, then seven and finally ten. Could it really be unanimous? But this had to go to an official vote. Having watched too many courtroom dramas I kept half an eye on the door for the bedraggled, sweaty lawyer bursting through the double doors, bellowing ‘stop the vote’ as he waved a killer document from his manicured fingers. But this is the South Downs not the Hollywood Hills. The vote was called. The hands shot up. Unanimous ‘no’ to drilling in the South Downs! Applause rang around the room. Wide smiles and a huge amount of relief spread everywhere. On these seemingly small moments turn the fate of entire communities.
The South Downs National Park has stood up for itself and all those who value it, rightly acting as gamekeeper not poacher to protect this special area. But despite government spin the possibility of fracking in protected areas such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty remains. Decision-makers in these areas should take a lead from the SDNPA and their rigorous approach to assessing this application. And of course this should apply to all applications, regardless of location.
Celtique can limp away to lick their wounds and count their losses knowing they have done a service to the fracking industry. The industry sent in the clowns to see what they could get away with. Not much in Sussex as it turns out. Celtique fatally underestimated the grit, initiative and commitment of local communities and their allies in fighting applications that are inappropriate locally, nationally and globally.
But Cuadrilla, IGas, Rathlin and the other fracking speculators salivating over the promised frack rush will have studied Celtique’s multiple fiascos at Wisborough Green and Fernhurst very closely. They will up their game. Those who recognise fracking as another fossil-fuel dead-end must do likewise. The stakes are high.
You can keep the pressure up by submitting your response to the consultations currently being run by Lancashire County Council who have received two applications from Cuadrilla to frack at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood. Thousands of people have submitted their objections to Cuadrilla’s plans already. A massive and powerful opposition movement is growing in Lancashire but they need every bit of firepower they can get. Pile in now and make your voice heard.
Fracking is sending us in entirely the wrong direction, away from the renewable, efficient energy that is required to combat the impacts of climate change. Let’s keep making it clear, the UK’s Not For Shale.