Francis Maude: vehemence of protests is premature

Horsham MP Francis Maude
Horsham MP Francis Maude

Yes it’s made national headlines and featured prominently in the press, on TV and radio – the protests against moves to explore for oil near Balcombe.

Let me start by making one thing crystal clear. I totally support the right of peaceful lawful protest. It’s an essential part of a free country. And a second thing. Cuadrilla do not have consent nor are they are about to start hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). All they are doing is exploring to see if there are deposits of shale oil or gas capable of commercial production. And if commercial production does turn out to be viable, I understand that the Balcombe site is unlikely to be the one from which Cuadrilla would operate.

And we’ll before they got there, Cuadrilla would have to negotiate an exhaustive regulatory process, governed by the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

When granting Cuadrilla a mining waste permit, the Environment Agency looked closely at the potential impact on water supply, one of local residents’ concerns. The decision document makes clear that, ‘we are satisfied that we have fully assessed the risk to surface water and groundwater and that there will be no unacceptable impact or risk of pollution’.

So the vehemence of the protests are a little premature. And as my email inbox reveals, the behaviour of those protesters who travelled from miles away has disappointed and upset many local residents, and stretched the police and their resources.

Balcombe is a beautiful part of my Horsham Parliamentary constituency - a classic Sussex village, calm, settled, law-abiding, with a real sense of community. Local people were going about a very determined but peaceful protest which was shouldered aside by the ugly scenes that we all saw in the papers and on TV.

I’ve monitored developments closely. I’ve had meetings with the Environment Agency and Cuadrilla. I’ve met with local residents and raised their concerns with the appropriate authorities, making sure local concerns are heard. I’ve spoken with Michael Fallon, the Energy Minister, and I’ve liaised closely with Nicholas Soames, my Parliamentary neighbour who can raise our constituents’ concerns in Parliament (as a Minister I’m restricted to speaking on my own Cabinet Office portfolio). Yes we need to exploit our own indigenous energy sources so we don’t become completely dependent on imports.

Yes we do want the jobs and revenues that could come with a successful British industry. But we need to make sure that local concerns are heard and understood.

This is a sensitive and complex issue, with major local and national implications. I will continue to do all I can to ensure that residents’ views are heard.