Fracking: A small muted cheer for our politicians (and CPRE)?

15755082873_e6c31b7f5d_zI think that we can afford to raise one cheer for our MPs for decisions they have taken on the future of the fracking industry. In their final Commons debate on the latest Infrastructure Bill the Government made concessions that give effect to significant points for which CPRE has campaigned both nationally and locally here in Sussex.

New planning rules mean that there should be no unconventional drilling (fracking) for shale oil or gas in “protected areas” i.e. the South Downs or other National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, SSSIs, Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas or in other areas near to groundwater sources. CPRE played an active role in assisting the successful proposers of this amendment to the Infrastructure Bill.

The Government has also agreed to impose a number of other significant preconditions before fracking can be allowed to take place. These include environmental impact assessments in all cases, extended site monitoring, and an obligation on planning authorities to consider the cumulative impact of fracking in the area. Planning authorities also get greater powers to impose well decommissioning conditions.

Hooray on these counts. However, before we cheer too loudly, let us all understand that these concessions will NOT mean the end of exploration for hydrocarbons beneath the South Downs or the Weald. All exploratory drilling to date in Sussex has involved conventional, somewhat less controversial, drilling techniques, not fracking. The new restrictions and requirements do not apply to, and will not put a stop to, conventional drilling for oil and gas within specially designated areas. Nor will the new rules make conventional drilling any safer or better regulated.

That is one reason why we cannot give three cheers to our politicians, and why CPRE will remain vigilant in its campaign to protect the Sussex countryside.

The second reason for only offering muted cheers is the heavy defeat of a Commons motion to impose a moratorium on fracking while an independent assessment is carried out into the impact of unconventional petroleum on climate change, the environment, health and safety and the economy. This, despite the moratorium being called for by the environmental audit committee of MPs in a pretty robust report published this week. Instead, the Prime Minister has said that the Government will continue to “go all out” for shale gas in the UK.

How short sighted! Despite the current Government’s unwavering belief in hydrocarbons extracted from shale as some kind of magic solution to our energy needs, the fact is that the UK is committed to decarbonising its electricity supplies within the next 15 years. Shale gas/oil is not there on tap to pour into our homes and businesses. We don’t even know what economically recoverable reserves exist, or where. Acceptable space for mass exploitation of the resource, wherever reserves are found, simply doesn’t exist. Public trust in the regulation and planning system is non-existent. And right now, the drop in oil prices plays havoc with the economics of investment in large scale speculative oil exploration.

For all these reasons, even putting aside the environmental and health issues, it seems unlikely that we will see large-volume recovery of shale oil or gas for quite a few years. And that timeframe is simply incompatible with making hydrocarbons from shale a key resource ahead of our climate change commitment to source our energy needs entirely from non carbon-producing sources by 2030. Surely the Environmental Audit Committee of MPs was right to say that, in these circumstances, we should take time to understand better what the environmental impact of the new technology would be. Or are we not so committed to carbon reduction and renewables after all?

Michael Brown, CPRE Sussex

Image © David Holt

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Data from the Protect Sussex map

chart

Gavin Barker sent this chart in. Gavin created and continues to compile the Protect Sussex map. The map put together by data supplied by you via this webform. It shows a rise in planning proposals reported to us, as well as a rapid rise in approvals. Part of this rise, obviously, is the fact that our members are being more vigilant and reporting more planning news.

Gavin adds a word of warning: “Please allow for some distortion in that data improves over time  – we just know more than we did before, it doesn’t always convey an exact and accurate  trend because people will come back with corrections.

“However that said, it is still a fairly accurate trend in terms of the numbers of approvals and rejections etc.”

 

Countryside or Concrete: the Drill Hall hustings and a charter for change

IMG_0600On the 21st of March CPRE Sussex will hold an important public event ‘Countryside… or Concrete?’ at Drill Hall in Horsham  and it will be your opportunity to hear the views of the Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP parties on issues affecting cherished countryside in Sussex.

This is a not-to-be missed opportunity, maybe the last big opportunity for CPRE members to question, cross question and press home to all party candidates the need to end the  reckless and unrestrained developments that threaten to destroy much of our countryside, damage wildlife, increase pollution, and diminish vital  ecosystem services such as flood and  storm protection. The latter alone could incur vastly greater costs than any party candidate is prepared to admit.

And what will we have in  place of treasured greenfield sites? Certainly not affordable housing for local people nor the required infrastructure designed to meet increased demand. Take water for example:  in 2003, Sussex very nearly ran out of water. How will even the most stringent management of this resource cope with 5,600 new homes per year – more than two ‘Worthings’ in the 20 years of the plan? And how do these massive planned developments combined with added miles of tarmacked road square with our commitments to reduce CO2 emissions in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change?

Hustings events are a great way to raise the profile of these issues and put party candidates on the spot, but two drawbacks need to be overcome: the first is that answers given by party candidates are inevitably confined to what is permissible in their manifestos – and party manifestos increasingly look the same. So don’t expect a great deal of ‘customer choice’ in the stalls laid out by party candidates –  and audience participants will need to push hard to force candidates to think outside the box.

The second is lack of any clear outcome. Hustings are double edged; they both vivify election campaigns  and cast a fog of rhetoric over issues that demand urgent clarity. They give   ample opportunity for theatre: verbal skirmishes, jabs, jibes, sharp retorts and jokes; heartfelt speeches, warm words and a great deal of obfuscation. To cut through to the core of what a candidate is saying will likely require adroit chairpersonship and a firm hand  in repeatedly steering candidates back to the question that was asked, rather than the point they would like to make.

A publicly accessible record of the day as a means of calling candidates to account

Beyond these two challenges is one vital but often overlooked and undervalued outcome: a comprehensive record of the day itself.  Not a summary but a publicly accessible, detailed record of what was actually said, promised and pledged by candidates.  Why is this so important? To avoid the awkward situation where a party candidate – now MP – claims later that they were misquoted, quoted out of context, that the record is incomplete or that they never gave any such commitment. Ideally, any record of the day would be high profile, very visible and accessible, and open for comments (moderated) by those who were unable to make it on the day. It could even stand on its own website since its value is greatly diminished if it is tucked away as a PDF document in an obscure corner of a website.  To maximise its value,  it should be something which everyone can refer  back to in the months and years ahead in order to track, compare and call to account candidates promises, should their voting record and subsequent speeches be wholly at variance with what they promised.

Creating such a record can be an onerous and time consuming exercise and while video recording the whole event  is one  easy option, the challenge of then referring back and finding key moments and milestones in the meeting can tax even the most patient web visitor as they scroll backwards and forwards endlessly to find the vital remark or commitment a candidate made.

Base the hustings around a pledge campaign and link it to the Sussex CPRE Charter

While these difficulties can be overcome, they may be made easier if the hustings event is based around a series of pledges that party candidates are asked to discuss and ideally sign up to on the day. The pledge campaign could be  based on the CPRE Sussex Charter. This gives focus and structure to the hustings and helps ensure that questions and answers revolve around the key themes laid down in the charter  and don’t instead get lost in heated discussions by party candidates who compete to claim that their manifesto best answers a particular question  from the floor.

A citizens UK manifesto for every town

There is one final ingredient I would like to throw into the mix of suggestions laid out above:  A charter or citizens manifesto  based on a city, a town, a village, or  a neighbourhood. Use the CPRE Sussex charter as a template, combine it with Sussex Wildlife Trust Manifesto [PDF] and encourage CPRE members to fan and forge links with local groups and communities in their area, from the local ramblers  and conservation volunteers to  residents associations  and their local church.

Why not re-frame the whole election debate from the point of view of local people – their lived experience and the issues and concerns that exercise them? This is not as daft as it sounds and there are now outstanding examples of a growing movement towards  grassroots politics that appeal to both left and right, such Citizens UK.

A27 Plans risk major blow to Sussex countryside

CPRE Sussex Director Georgia Wrighton blogs:

One could be forgiven for thinking that ‘the only game in town’ for addressing improvements on the A27 east of Lewes is a major new dual carriageway carving a scar through unspoilt Low Weald countryside and devastating views from the South Downs National Park. And what of the Long Man of Wilmington?- if lobbyists have their way, the new road could be just a mile from the Ancient Monument, and visible and audible from it.

Plans for damaging new roads west of Polegate are firmly on the table

Some would have us believe that we need to swallow the ‘bitter pill’ of new road infrastructure of the kind emerging out of government A27 Feasibility workshops. It is the brave way forward for economic health in the area, we are told, and we need to grasp the nettle or be branded as NIMBYS.

The Downs above Folkington © Derry Robinson, Friston
The Downs above Folkington © Derry Robinson, Friston

Well, it became apparent to the 100 or so people who attended a Campaign to Protect Rural England (Sussex) public meeting in Polegate last Saturday (8 November) that plans for damaging new roads west of Polegate are firmly on the table without convincing economic evidence or traffic demand data to back them up. Local people were left wondering how on earth such a devastating blow to the countryside could be hurled at an unsuspecting public, who until that meeting were blissfully unaware of the blunt instrument that could strike in their name.

Is it really good housekeeping to throw hundreds of millions of pounds at a ‘road to nowhere’?

Traffic on the A27 between Polegate and Lewes has not increased in the last 10 years. Instead there has been increasing use of the rail service, and access could be improved to meet demand.  A public information sign posted on the A27 just outside Lewes reminds us of the direct rail link option between Lewes and Eastbourne. Surely we need to get the best out of the perfectly good rail link that we’ve already got. Is it really good housekeeping to throw hundreds of millions of pounds at a ‘road to nowhere’? Whose interests will this really serve?

View north from Hunters Burgh © Derry Robinson, Friston
View north from Hunters Burgh © Derry Robinson, Friston

Our public meeting learnt how safety and accident concerns on the A27 could be addressed by junction improvements already planned, except that the fate of those junction improvements was apparently flung out of the equation and apparently not sexy enough to qualify as grand political gestures postured at solving ‘the problem’. Neither was investment in rail such as Willingdon Chord a charming enough proposition to satisfy those baying for tarmac and concrete across our precious countryside.

Local people learnt of protests that same day against bus service cuts in East Sussex, when surely investment in public transport is the responsible way to better connect Sussex and safeguard all our futures. Do we want to trash our countryside heritage and increase choking, noisy traffic into our villages and towns, or make it easier for everyone to get around ‘lightly’ with the health of this and the next generation in mind? Isn’t futureproofing business about access to jobs for all of the vast talent Sussex has to offer, not just those with cars, and about securing resources for the economic health of everyone? Has the value of our beautiful countryside and historic villages been wiped off the balance sheet?

The conversation?

In recent decades, there has never been a time when the countryside has been more contested.

There may seem like a mountain of issues that need addressing – but there’s also no shortage of ideas, either!  This blog is an informal place where members and friends can put forward ideas, or talk about projects we know about or are involved with. It’s a place for getting the conversation started.