The battle of Balcombe: West Sussex town is new front line in fracking debate

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A West Sussex town is in the front line of an attempt to impose an invasive oil and gas exploration technology on the English countryside

The people of Balcombe in West Sussex have plenty to thank Britain’s archaic land-owning system for. Sitting in the garden of Colette Randall, an anti-fracking protester who lives a few hundred yards from the drill site, there is nothing to see but trees, nothing to hear but birdsong.

The owner of the Balcombe Estate boasts of the “magnificent, airy wildlife habitat with beautiful, mature specimens of trees” which his family’s management of local forests has produced over the past 60 years, and  Mrs Randall agrees. “If it wasn’t a feudal estate we would be a suburb of Crawley by now,” she says.

The downside is that lordship encourages deference – the likeliest explanation for how Simon Greenwood, the present laird, was able to smuggle a planning application to drill – and possibly frack – for oil and gas on his land through Balcombe Parish Council without even the briefest discussion.

Mrs Randall, who served as a parish councillor years ago, says of the experience that it was “like swimming through treacle”. And to be fair to the councillors concerned, at the time fracking was not the hot-button term it has become today.

Nowhere in the application did the term “hydraulic fracking” appear. At the meeting in February 2010,  Mr Greenwood merely “mentioned a recent application [for] exploratory oil drilling... off the London Road on Estate land,” according to the minutes. And that was that.

Subsequently Cuadrilla, the US exploration firm, explained that what they wanted to do was “prospecting with possible stimulation”. As a euphemism for pumping poisonous chemicals including hydrochloric acid, polyacrylamide, ethylene glycol and ammonium persulfate deep into the soil it is up there with “friendly fire” and “collateral damage”. No wonder the councillors were blindsided.

The result today is that this pristine valley on the Weald where the average house price is £500,000 – “a very conservative town where people say of Tory candidates ‘I don’t care what he stands for, if he’s Conservative I’m voting for him’”, as one new resident puts it – finds itself in the front line of an attempt to impose this invasive and potentially disastrous extraction technology across a huge swathe of England’s countryside.

Media coverage over the past month has been dominated by the mostly left-wing protesters from outside, but  85 per cent of Balcombe villagers recently canvassed about fracking were opposed to it. This is Ground Zero for an anguished debate about what Conservatism means. Does it mean the natural beauty of this area – or the wealth this beauty symbolises, and the means to obtain that wealth? Can the two be combined? For that debate, this is very fertile soil.

As you drive from the M23 to Balcombe, there is a pub on the left called the Cowdray Arms. It is one of the few reminders that Balcombe was until recently part of the enormous Cowdray Estate, most of which lies  40 miles to the west.

The Estate dates back to the Norman Conquest. After the extinction of the original line it was sold to Sir Weetman Pearson, a Yorkshire-born industrialist, in 1908. One of the towering tycoons of the age, he was created Viscount Cowdray in 1917, and today his descendants divide the estate between them.

Michael Pearson, Lord Cowdray, the former hippy and film producer, lives near the village of Fernhurst, where he presides over a classy commercialisation of the family brand, with a polo park, golf course, holiday cottages, wedding fairs, model farm and public admission to the ruins of his Tudor castle. Simon Greenwood inherited the Balcombe Estate, a fraction of the original Cowdray property, which was given by the Cowdray estate to his mother as her dowry. 

Both Mr Pearson and  Mr Greenwood profess the traditional patrician concern for the countryside in their care.

Mr Pearson’s is, as his website puts it, “in the heart of the South Downs National Park”, in an area of outstanding natural beauty which provides a congenial setting for his business activities.

Mr Greenwood runs pheasant shoots, practices sustainable forest management and gives parties of visiting schoolchildren introductions to country life.

“Maintaining and enhancing the Estate’s beautiful countryside, woodlands and rural properties for future generations is key to the  Estate’s activities…” the Balcombe Estate website claims.

But the huge deposits of shale gas under the Weald, and the possibility of exploiting them by fracking, risk turning these ancient properties upside down and destroying everything that makes them special. And by inviting Cuadrilla onto his ancestral land, Simon Greenwood has taken the first step.

Last week, after a long silence,  Mr Greenwood broke cover. He had not “found any reason,” he told  The Guardian, “not to consider [fracking] if an economic deposit of oil or gas is found… the UK is running short of energy supplies… The family have long had a policy of support for business and diversification of the estate.”

For his part, Lord Cowdray has made his feelings on the matter clear, rejecting an application by the Celtique Energie exploration company to drill on his land. But that has only shifted the problem slightly: the company is now seeking permission to drill nearby.

But the “remote, well-screened location”, in Celtique Energie’s words, of their chosen site is still within the South Downs National Park and only yards from the converted barn where a protester called Marcus Adams lives. As a result, the chief risk officer with a major insurance company and his wife, Judith, are now deeply committed to Frack-Free Fernhurst.

“From here you can see Black Down, former home to Lord Tennyson, and Shulbrede Priory, where Hubert Parry wrote the music for Jerusalem,” says  Mr Adams. “Now they want to dig oil wells every mile or two, resulting in thousands of wellheads right across the Weald. It would industrialise this area in a particularly ugly way.” 

As the activists point out, we are not talking about a few nodding donkeys: it is in the nature of fracking that it requires a huge number of wells at  short intervals.

Fracking may decrease Britain’s dependence on overseas supplies for a while, and it would certainly improve the Balcombe Estate’s bottom line. But the idea that the beauty of the Weald would survive industrialisation on such a scale seems fanciful.

“Conservatism” means both the gentle beauty of this part of the world, the country pursuits, the love of tradition which the Cowdray estate epitomises, and the ruthless, entrepreneurial energy of Sir Weetman Pearson himself, whose oil finds in Mexico – one of them at the time was the biggest oil well in the world – made him a Titan of the burgeoning oil business.

Are the two sides of that coin compatible? That’s what the Battle of Balcombe is all about.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'