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Could fierce opposition to fracking make life difficult for certain Tories?

The energy behind the anti-fracking campaign only appears to be on the rise.

“Fracking is one issue that encapsulates nearly everything that is currently wrong with the state of our democracy,” says Tina Rothery, the anti-fracking “nana" now standing as a Green Party candidate in Fylde in Lancashire. But is it also a subject that could leave the Tory Party fractured come the 8 June?

Tina has long battled the UK’s oil and gas industry over this issue and sees the government’s recent support for an exploration well at Preston New Road (in direct opposition to the will of Lancashire County Council) as a particularly “sickening” act:

“It shows that it was possible for Westminster to say that local democracy doesn’t count when they choose it not to count. It also shows that what we consider to be a clear and obvious danger to the health of our children, comes second to the profits of an industry.”

Objections to fracking are many – from the threat that pumping high volumes of water and chemicals into the ground poses to the local environment, to its global contribution to rising CO2. Even Sam Hall, a senior researcher at Bright Blue, a liberal conservative think tank, is not entirely convinced by the development of more carbon-intensive infrastructure, "at a time when we should be rapidly reducing our consumption of fossil fuels".

Such arguments appear to have struck a seam of sympathy during the recent local elections. The Green Party saw its support surge across numerous at-risk areas: in North Yorkshire's Falsgrave and Stepney, David Malone’s vote rose from 18 per cent - 32 per cent; in Lancashire’s Lancaster Central, Gina Dowding was re-elected with a massively increased majority; and on the Isle of Wight the election returned the Green’s first ever councillor for the island. According to Dilys Cluer, a Green Party councillor on Scarborough Borough Council, some party supporters are becoming more active specifically on fracking.

Independent candidates and Lib Dems also returned strong results in fracked-off locales. In Malton in North Yorkshire – where a test-well was given planning approval last year - the anti-fracking Independent candidate saw their 2013 lead surge from 855-1554 votes.

So is it possible that these arguments could yet cause Conservative government support for the industry to fissure and split?

Public support is behind the fracking-fight: the latest government survey shows 30 per cent oppose the practice, while just 19 per cent are in favour. And left-wing thinking on the subject is increasingly united: Labour’s leaked manifesto suggests the party will join the Greens and Lib Dems in calling for an outright ban. In the recent Manchester Mayoral race, even the Conservative candidate tweeted that he would oppose fracking “until, if ever, it’s proven to be safe”.

The economic justification for fracking is also on unstable ground. Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, thinks its profitability might not pan out as hoped, “particularly with international gas prices falling again and Donald Trump determined to increase US output". While according to Josh Emden, IPPR Research Fellow, there are concerns over its more basic viability: “Even leaving aside environmental and carbon budget concerns, estimates reported by government from actual test drilling currently show fracking could only supply gas to the UK for an optimistic maximum of ten years.”

But what about Conservative domination at county level – won’t that hand the party control over fracking’s future? Seven English counties with high densities of fracking licences all saw their numbers of Conservative councillors increase in the recent elections, potentially making those councils more willing to grant applications to frack. For Kathryn McWhirter, a member of Balcombe’s Frack Free Residents Association in West Sussex, the Tory triumph has been deflating: “Too many in our area are still asleep, unaware of the plethora of wells we could have across this region if we fail to oppose the industry successfully.”

Yet in spite of this, the energy behind the anti-fracking campaign only appears to be on the rise. In the upcoming general election, the Lib Dems have their eye on Ryedale, and the Green's Tina Rothery on Fylde. Plus, thanks to the pooled resources of Frack Free United and Cross Party Frack Free, it is becoming ever easier to track the thinking of individual candidates – with leaflets, an interactive map, and a register where those candidates can document their support for a ban.  

Vital now will be keeping up the pressure - both in the lead up to the election and beyond. Friends of the Earth is on the case with a call for all prospective parliamentary candidates to agree to a series of environmental pledges. Campaigners at Reclaim the Power are already organising protests for the summer.

As Greenpeace’s Hannah Martin recently said in a statement: "Facing arrest for protesting is scary, but the prospect of fracking in Lancashire is scarier.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: PA
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How the fire at Grenfell Tower exposed the ugly side of the housing boom

Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society, but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

It’s impressive, in a way, how quickly we slot horrific new events into the beliefs we already hold. In the Grenfell Tower fire – a tragedy that, at the time of writing, is presumed to have cost 79 people their lives – some on the right saw a story about poorly built high-rise ­social housing. The left, however, saw it as fresh evidence of the damage that seven years of austerity had done to local councils.

The fire does feel symbolic: of the inequality at the heart of one of the richest cities in the world; of a government unable to look after its people. But reality rarely slots neatly into our prefabricated narratives and, although the details are still emerging, it already seems as if many of those assumptions were flawed. Experts’ theories about why the fire spread so fast have focused not on the poor quality of the building’s original 1967 design but on problems with the external cladding installed in a £10m refurbishment last year.

What’s more, while most councils have struggled with years of centrally imposed cuts, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) isn’t one of them: it is sitting on reserves worth £274m and, in 2014, found enough money to give council-tax payers a rebate of £100 per head. And yet, it seemed, it could not find the cash to pay for sprinklers or the £5,000 extra it would have cost to use a fire-resistant form of cladding. There was austerity in Kensington, but it was the product of conscious choice, not financial pressure.

Voting intention by housing type in the 2017 election

For a whole week, those who survived the fire faced a second indignity: the uncertainty regarding where they could now live. The day after the tragedy, the housing minister Alok Sharma offered his “guarantee that every single family from Grenfell House will be rehoused in the local area”. This was both morally and politically right – but whether he would have made this promise if he had been more than a couple of days into the job seemed an open question, because few in the housing sector believed it was one he could keep. The council already had more than 2,700 households waiting for accommodation (actually quite low for inner London). It was possible to give priority to survivors of the fire, but it would require pushing others yet further down the list.

Nor did it seem likely that the homes on offer likely to be adequate replacements for those that have been lost. “Most people made homeless in London have a very long wait in temporary accommodation,” Kate Webb, the head of policy at the housing charity Shelter, told me. “And even that is going to be outside of their area.” In the immediate future, at least, it seemed likely it would be much easier to find bed and breakfasts in Hounslow than permanent new homes in Kensington.

In the event, the naysayers, myself included, were wrong: on Wednesday afternoon, after the print copy of this article had gone to press, the Evening Standard reported that the Greenfell families would be rehoused in 68 apartments in the luxury Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. The deal, specially brokered by the Homes & Communities Agency on behalf of the government, was great news for those families. But it is striking that it took a tragedy and national scandal on the scale of Grenfell to make it happen. And those homes – which were always earmarked as social housing – are now not available to the 2,700 other families on RBKC’'s waiting list. They will not be receiving similar treatment.

It doesn’t feel like this should be difficult: Britain is rich, London richer and RBKC the richest borough of all. Yet the shortage of available homes reflects not just some kind of moral failure on the part of the council but a genuine shortage of property.

Who is building houses?

To be blunt about this: we have not been building enough for a very long time. In the decade after the 2001 census, London’s population grew from 7.3 million to 8.2 million, an increase of roughly 12 per cent. The capital’s total number of homes, however, increased by just 7 per cent. Both trends have continued since, with all sorts of entirely predictable results: higher rents, overcrowded homes, hilarious news items about renters going to see “studio flats” that turned out to be a bed in a shed with a tree growing through the wall.

London’s housing crisis is the biggest and most visible in the country yet it is far from unique. In Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol – in almost any city with a decent jobs market – housing costs have soared in recent years. In other parts of the UK, house prices are lower; but so, unfortunately, are wages. The result is a collapse in property ownership among the under-40s – and, one is tempted to suggest, flatlining national productivity and unexpected enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

We know how to fix this (in that we know how to build more homes) but we haven’t, for two main reasons. One is that we have inadvertently constructed a housing market in which nobody has both the interest and the capacity to build more. Private developers bid for land based on the price they believe they will be able to sell new homes there for. As a result, if prices fall, they stop building: look at a graph of housing supply over the past 50 years, and it is abundantly clear that the private sector will never give us the homes we need.

This would be fine if other organisations were allowed to build but they are not. Housing associations are restricted by government finance rules. Councils were explicitly banned from fully replacing homes sold under Right to Buy; today, they lack the money and, after decades of disempowerment, the expertise, too. The 2004 Barker review argued that the UK needed to be building 250,000 new homes every year just to keep up with demand. It feels telling that the last year we managed to do this was 1979.

Total government grant to local councils

The other reason we haven’t built enough homes is that we place such tight restrictions on what we can build. Land-use restrictions such as on the green belts prevent our cities from growing outwards; rules on tall buildings prevent them from growing upwards. These are often legal, but are rigidly enforced by public demand.

Last year, for instance, the Friends of Richmond Park, residents of the west London suburbs, fought a noisy campaign to stop tall buildings from being built 14 miles away in Stratford, in the East End of London, because they would ruin their protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The buildings wouldn’t prevent west Londoners from seeing St Paul’s, you understand: the buildings could simply be seen behind it. All these restrictions, all these campaigns, are there to protect something good. Between them, they add up to a shortage of housing that is blighting lives.

It is hard not to notice the parallels between the Grenfell Tower fire and the broader housing crisis. RBKC bosses chose to promote electorally motivating tax cuts for the borough’s largely rich residents over fire safety in its social homes. As a nation, we have consistently chosen to protect the views and house prices of those who have housing over the needs of those who don’t. Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

The survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster were left homeless by the tragedy, and it looked for several days like that they would have nowhere else to go. Both of these things may well have been avoidable. But austerity is not just a policy: it’s a state of mind. 

George Eaton: The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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