The government’s announcement today that fracking will not take place in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty save ‘in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’ is a welcome and sensible move. It may indeed be in the national interest to exploit a new source of energy, but these landscapes are specially protected in the national interest, too.
The government states that countryside ‘adjacent’ to these protected areas will also be covered by the policy. That will be a relief to the residents of Wisborough Green and Kirdford in my constituency, two villages in beautiful countryside close to the South Downs National Park which have faced the prospect of drilling.
Last week West Sussex County Council turned down Celtique Energie‘s application for exploratory oil and gas drilling that could lead to fracking, becoming the first local authority in England to do so. The Council’s Planning Committee said that the company ‘had not demonstrated the site represented the best option compared to other sites, has unsafe highways access and would have an adverse impact on Wisborough Green as a conservation area’.
By choosing a location that would involve heavy lorries passing through a quintessential English village, with its green, pub and cricket pitch, Celtique managed to unite ‘greens’ who oppose fracking on principle (a principled but probably small element of the local population) with Middle England, who saw an adverse impact on their community and possibly their property prices (a substantial majority).
Traffic was the key issue. Celtique told West Sussex County Council that exploratory drilling would cause less than a 3 per cent increase on traffic movements over nearly six months. But the Council’s Highways Department rejected the company’s figures, assessing that drilling would actually cause up to two-thirds more heavy traffic for the period.
What residents particularly feared was that the heavy lorries for exploratory drilling could just be the beginning, with no clear end in sight.