Sleepy Balcombe wakes up with a roar over prospect of fracking

Tom Bawden visits the West Sussex village where events are shaking up old allegiances

Balcombe, Sussex

To describe the sleepy London commuter village of Balcombe as a Tory heartland doesn't do justice to its conservative leanings.

"We're a very conservative community, kind of like The League of Gentleman," said Steve Morris, a ten-year resident of the West Sussex village near Lewes, referring to the television comedy series set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey.

But the prospect of fracking for oil and gas, a proven inducer of earth tremors, on Balcombe's doorstep has unleashed an earthquake on the local political landscape.

It's turning life-long Conservatives away from the Tory party which so enthusiastically promotes fracking, while local MP and Cabinet Office Secretary Francis Maude has taken a pounding for not opposing the scheme.

"My philosophy is closely aligned to the Conservative party, but I won't be voting for the Tories," said Mr Morris, a producer of iPhone games.

Louisa Delphy, one of the project's most vocal opponents, provides a good case study of the shift of the political tectonic plates in Sussex - and potentially across the home counties, where vast reserves of shale gas are thought to lie and where the Tory party has long ruled the roost.

"I did vote Conservative in the last election and I am now looking to Francis Maude to represent my views. If he doesn't and fracking goes ahead here I will look elsewhere in the next election for someone else that will," said Ms Delphy.

"And that goes for a lot of people in the village," she added.

On Saturday, the fracking company Cuadrilla will begin exploring a site just outside the village to determine how much oil and gas it contains.

If enough hydrocarbons are in evidence, the company, chaired by former BP chief executive Lord Browne, will set about extracting them. Although Cuadrilla insists it may be possible to produce oil and gas using conventional drilling techniques - and while it has not yet asked for or received permission to frack on the site - most locals are convinced the end result will see the company resort to fracking on the site for hydrocarbons.

The prospect of fracking has made a community that is conservative with a small c by nature, get up on its hind legs and protest. This has brought together local villages "uniting young and old, businessmen and housewives, Tory and Labour voters" like no other event for years, said resident Georgia Lawe.

Hundreds of residents and seasoned environmental campaigners from further afield descended on the proposed fracking site on the London Road a mile from Balcombe's primary school on the village green at 7am yesterday.

A group of protestors managed to suspend the site preparation by blocking the gate to the site so that lorries carrying crucial drilling equipment and rigs couldn't get through.

One was encircled with mock yellow crime scene tape.

In a captivating scene, security staff from G4S, the company that failed to provide enough guards for last year's Olympics, patrolled just inside the Cuadrilla side of the gate, wearing fluorescent green bibs and armed with Alsatian guard dogs.

Right up against them on the other side of the gate, the frontline protestors poured scorn on claims that the controversial process of fracking might not be used on the site. Fracking releases gas and oil by blasting chemicals, water and sand into the rock and has been linked to earth tremors, more worryingly the locals say, water pollution.

"If you're fracking and you know it, shout 'you lie'", was one of the many tailored numbers they sang, in this case to the tune of "If you're happy and you know it".

Among the protestors was 55-year old environmental veteran Simon "Sitting Bull" Medhurst, who last hit the headlines when he burrowed himself in a tunnel to delay the building of the controversial Hastings to Bexhill link road in January.

This was the hardcore of protestors engaged in a prolonged argument with the policeman, who was trying in vain to get them to move and patiently warning them that if they didn't move soon they would have to be forcibly removed a bit further down the line. They rubbed shoulders with some softer-core but still passionate locals.

"Those are the hardcore people who don't mind getting arrested, but I'm here with my son and daughter so I'm going to stay here," said Paul Bazely, who some readers may know as Troy from the tv series Benidorm, standing just to the side of the action.

"But I'm very much against this development. This is the frontline, if they start here it will go through the whole of Britain," he said.

Although Cuadrilla has more advanced shale gas operations in Lancashire these have been halted for the time being while an extended environmental assessment takes place.

Nor did Paul have much time for George Osborne's plan to pay fracking communities at least £100,000 in compensation.

"A hundred grand, oh wow. What a minute, piffling and insulting offer. So you get a new library or village hall and you lose your water supply and can't farm anymore," he said.

A recent survey by the British Geographical Society suggested Britain could have enough recoverable shale gas to supply the country for ten years - although the amount that can actually be extracted in a densely-populated country that traditionally opposes located development is open to question.

But George Osborne is strongly promoting shale gas and last week introduced huge tax breaks for developers to kick start the fledgling industry.

Supporters of the technique were notably absent yesterday, although a survey suggests about 15 per cent of the village is happy for the project to proceed.

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