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

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
  • @peterpopham

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.