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28 November 2018

How fracking is radicalising rural voters in the Tory heartlands

Whatever its future in England, fracking has already left a troubled legacy and created a new type of activist.

By India Bourke

Miranda Cox was asleep at her home in Kirkham, Lancashire, when the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 April  2011. Deep in the earth below, a nearby fracking site had unleashed a tremor of 2.3 magnitude on the Richter scale. The impact sent vibrations roaring to the surface, where they “shook the ground and woke us up”, Cox recalls.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, was immediately suspended across the UK. But as energy companies such as Cuadrilla Resources pushed to continue, so Cox, then a 43-year-old mother of two, began to educate herself about the process by which water and chemicals are pumped underground to release gas from shale rock.

At first she was open-minded; the government claimed fracking would provide well-paid jobs and a secure energy supply. But the lack of a single, independent regulator made her suspicious. And then in 2016, when Sajid Javid, then communities secretary, over-rode the county council’s rejection of a new test site, Cox shifted from concerned resident to committed campaigner. “That was the moment I joined the dots, picked up my placard and took part in a demo,” she told me.

When we met one recent morning she was standing with a group of protesters outside the gates of the Cuadrilla-owned test site in Lancashire. Wearing waterproofs and a green woolly hat, Cox, who was elected as a town councillor in 2015, looked flushed from dancing.

“We sometimes put on the Pink Panther theme tune when the police come,” she said, after she observed officers removing protesters from in front of a waiting van. “We have to laugh, because we are going into winter and you’ve got to keep your humanity.”

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Exploratory fracking started again here at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, in October, making it the first place to extract shale gas anywhere in England for seven years. But a series of tremors has repeatedly suspended production. A total of 37 minor seismic events were recorded between 15 October and 4 November: all too small to be felt on the surface but some large enough to force the operation to pause for checks. 

Opponents fear that if the country goes “all out for shale”, as David Cameron once hoped, the result will be mass rural industrialisation. Experts say more than 6,000 wells would need to be drilled in England in order to replace just half of future gas imports. At the start of 2018, these accounted for over 60 per cent of UK demand.

In response, industry and government point to the potential economic gain. Full production at Preston New Road would result in 1 per cent of the revenue going to the local community and the council retaining 100 per cent of business rates. Cuadrilla says that its contributions are “an investment that Lancashire needs”.

Yet even in Tory heartlands, such as the surrounding Fylde constituency, scepticism is on the rise. New housing developments, pushed through by the Planning Inspectorate, have put struggling local services under pressure, and the independent borough councillor Julie Brickles fears fracking will only exacerbate these problems: eroding house prices, threatening tourism and placing greater strain on respiratory health and local infrastructure.

“As a councillor I get tired of talking about potholes,” Brickles says, “and thousands of new truck journeys will make that worse.”

Is fracking sharpening the point of austerity’s wedge? It is certainly dividing rural communities from Westminster and causing ruptures within Conservative ranks. At least 20 Tory rebel MPs have reportedly threatened to vote down a government proposal to fast-track fracking projects across swathes of England, potentially including beneath national parks and other protected sites. In a recent parliamentary debate, Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde, described the plans as “downright bonkers”.

Menzies is right to be concerned. Until Cuadrilla arrived, two of his constituents, Julia and Ian Stribling, a retired couple who live in a residential park near the test site, always voted Conservative and spent their free time attending 1940s vintage festivals. Now they won’t vote for Menzies and instead participate in anti-fracking protests. “It’s a filthy industry and the government don’t give a tinker’s cut [curse] about anyone,” Julia says.

Not all in the region share this view, however. The relatively elderly, safe Tory constituency also has a strong pro-business lobby, with BAE Systems and the Sellafield nuclear plant among influential local employers. 

Factors beyond Lancashire are the most likely to decide the industry’s fate. In particular, the need to reduce climate change. Arguments about natural gas’s role as a progressive “bridge” fuel are increasingly hard to reconcile with a new UN recommendation to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

In principle, a combination of low-carbon hydrogen, electrification and district heating could make burning fossil fuels to supply heat all but redundant, says Dr David Joffe of the Committee on Climate Change.

The economic case for a British fracking industry is also receding. Gas prices have fallen sharply since 2013, and foreign supply is both secure and diverse. Established exporters such as Norway are now supplemented by the US, where fracking is possible at greater scale. The energy minister Claire Perry may spread fear about dependence “on Mr Putin”, but her department asserts that “the UK is in no way reliant on Russian gas” (which accounts for around 1 per cent of our imports).

Fracking’s future in England is thus deeply unsettled. Yet whatever its outcome, it has already left a troubled legacy – one that has undermined trust in local democracy and policing, and radicalised a new type of activist.

“I’ve seen this town become a place where local people struggle to have their voices heard,” says Miranda Cox. “It’s not just what it does to the land, it’s what it does to your psychology too.”

This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died