Francis Maude: I find a community deeply divided

Horsham MP Francis Maude
Horsham MP Francis Maude

No prizes for guessing what issue has dominated my postbag as MP for the Horsham constituency. Yes, it’s the protests surrounding drilling near Balcombe. And it was very useful to visit a few days ago and take the opportunity to talk to local residents.

I found a community deeply divided by what has been happening. Yes there are some who are deeply opposed to any drilling whatsoever. Some who would be anxious at the prospect of fracking in their neighbourhood without knowing much more about the implications. Others who think it would be wrong for Britain to ignore the potential benefits of a huge UK-based energy resource and think Sussex shouldn’t rule out participating in the economic benefits. But most of all I found local people bemused that their quiet and peaceful village had become the focal point of a storm attracting protesters and media onlookers from all parts of Britain and beyond.

Let me once again make my position clear. I support the right of peaceful protest, and the right of concerned local citizens to have their concerns addressed. And I support the right of the company, having secured all the necessary permits and complied with all the requirements of the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the county council, to carry out this specific and time-limited activity.

Balcombe has become synonymous with fracking for shale gas. Odd, as they’re not fracking; it isn’t shale; and they’re exploring for oil not gas. Yes, exploring. People often ask why so many questions remain unanswered. The reason is that many can’t be answered until the exploratory drilling is completed. That will now take longer because of the disruption caused by the protests.

So what are the questions that the current activity is intended to answer? Will there be more exploratory wells? Will there be fracking? Where might it take place? If it happens, how many fracking sites would there be? Would fracking lead to more heavy lorry traffic? How would any oil or gas be transported? Will house prices be affected? (Ask the residents of Sandbanks, the most expensive district in southern England, whose houses are no further from Wytch Farm, the biggest onshore oilfield in Western Europe, than Lower Stumble is from Balcombe.)

There are those who will say no to any fracking for oil and gas in Sussex. There may be those who say that every site where there is commercial potential should be exploited. I think both are wrong. If sustainable energy can be safely developed in a way that is acceptable to local communities, then it would be folly to rule it out as a matter of dogma. But those communities are entitled to answers to their questions, and to having their concerns addressed. It is precisely to provide those answers that the drilling near Balcombe must be allowed to proceed to a conclusion.