It’s an unlikely coalition.
Bianca Jagger, Natalie Hynde – daughter of the rock star Chrissie – and the odd grey-suited City commuter (“Lloyd’s broker says no”) are marching as one. Their common cause: to obstruct and if possible prevent the drilling for oil near the West Sussex town of Balcombe. The slogans on some of the placards are less polite than that of the Lloyd’s man (and also less literate): “Get the Frack out of Sussex” and “Frack you! You fracking frackers”.
Oddly enough, the exploratory well being drilled by the energy company Cuadrilla does not involve “hydraulic fracking” – the breaking open of tight petroliferous rock formations by high-pressure injections of water and surfactants. It’s a single six-inch diameter well down to a depth of 2,500 feet; and if the flow from it is good (by no means certain) then future production will not require “fracking” either.
Yet such technical details will not deflect the demonstrators, whether motivated by sentimental soil-worship or a more hard-headed concern about the effect of drilling on local property prices. They just believe passionately that it’s grossly inappropriate to have a major extractive industry doing its business in this lovely part of England, the High Weald. They believe it; but they are wrong.
I know a bit about this, as I have lived in the High Weald for the past 16 years. The water running past our house has a distinctive rusty colour – caused by high iron content in the clay subsoil. The Romans – being industrious fellows – started the iron-working industry in this part of England. This extractive process grew in size and scale as the demand for iron expanded, most notably for the manufacture of cannons and the balls which we fired at sundry European enemies (such as the Spanish Armada). In eyeshot as I write this stands a derelict mill which harnessed the stream to power the furnaces; behind me is one of the Wealden forests – Dallington – which supplied the charcoal for smelting.
When I amble through it, I sometimes come across the hollows of the old charcoal pits. If I walk a little further, no more than a mile or two, I am at the heart of a still-active extractive operation, owned by British Gypsum. This land, while part of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, contains the country’s largest reserve of calcium sulphate, used to make plasterboard. The local miners run a 24-hour operation, although there are now only about 100 of them, a tenth of their number during the peak years of drilling.
Their controlled explosions 300 or so feet below the surface are just the sort of practice which, if said to be new or proposed, would bring the righteous wrath of Bianca Jagger and Natalie Hynde down on us – and doubtless also demonstrations by City-bound commuter residents. Yet there is not the slightest blight on local property prices, even if those nearest the British Gypsum mine occasionally complain about noisy machinery, as the extracted rock is transported by conveyer belt and onwards via a dedicated railway (just as it has been since the 1880s). Further afield, nearer Tunbridge Wells, stood the vast Highbrooms Brickworks, where the rich reddish Wealden clay was fired to provide the basic physical structure of countless housing booms.
The point is that the High Weald was never more than marginal in what people seem to regard as the sole traditional role of the countryside – farming. Its contours and villages, now seen as purely bucolic, are in fact the legacy of a vibrant industrial past. As so often in the English landscape, what seems “natural” is in fact anything but. The visible structure of the Wealden communities, with their churches, post offices and filigree criss-crossing of roads, is the residual superstructure of the human exploitation of natural resources harnessed for the sole benefit of man: just like the oil and gas which Cuadrilla is working to find and develop.
Nowadays, of course, the High Weald of Kent, East Sussex and West Sussex, is no longer the industrial heart of the country – as it had been before the coal revolution. Now the great majority of working residents commute to their place of employment – London, most obviously. This is an energy-intensive process, especially if they are using cars to get to the “big smoke” – although trains also rely on electricity, which is overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels for its generation.
The City-commuting residents demonstrating (“Lloyd’s broker says no”) against the Balcombe oilwell are therefore singularly lacking in economic self-awareness. Their very way of life depends on cheap, secure and plentiful energy: exactly what Cuadrilla is in the business of providing. That used to mean coal – conveniently located, for the most part, hundreds of miles away from the London commuter belt. Yet if oil and gas (which incidentally produce much less Co2 than coal per unit of energy produced) are in plentiful supply down South, why should the country as a whole be denied its benefits? The outraged of Balcombe are put to shame by an 11-year-old local called Phoebe who told a visiting reporter that she was “for fracking” having “done a project on it” at Balcombe Primary School: “I want energy for television and internet”.
The protesters doubtless imagine – or would like us to imagine – that a gas or oilfield would somehow blight the entire region. They will dismiss as merely self-interested propaganda the insistence last week by Cuadrilla’s chief executive Francis Egan that 100 shale gas production sites of the sort his firm aims to build could produce enough to supply a third of the UK’s annual gas demand while occupying only “a total area of just two square kilometres”. Egan (who has received death threats from one especially outraged opponent of fracking) added that “suitably screened by trees, the sites would be invisible to passers-by”.
Hard though it might be for the likes of Bianca Jagger and Natalie Hynde to believe, this is the truth. If you doubt it, consider that the largest onshore oilfield in Europe has been discreetly situated in an area much more ecologically sensitive than the High Weald. The Wytch Farm oilfield, discovered by the British Gas Corporation in 1973 in the Purbeck district of Dorset, has production facilities hidden in a coniferous forest on the southern shore of Poole Harbour. Its reservoir – which at peak output in 1997 was producing an extraordinary 110,000 barrels of oil a day – extends below the exquisite Studland peninsula: so this monster of an oilfield has been inconspicuously exploited at the heart of a world heritage site, a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and of several nature reserves.
It should reassure anxious Balcombe residents who told reporters that “prices of homes here will inevitably go down here” that values around Poole Harbour have not been in the tiniest bit depressed by the presence of the Wytch Farm oil production facilities: indeed, apart from the stucco terraces of Kensington and Chelsea, this is the most expensive stretch of real estate in the whole country.
Besides, it would be fitting for the High Weald to get back to its old business.