The uneasy tension in Balcombe that is being played out on our TV screens and on the radio moved up a gear last night with the arrest of Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, a mere 20 miles away to the South. Although there is no link between Haringey Council and this story, the website for the London Borough Council, some 48 miles further North displays the following “If a person without lawful authority or excuse in any way wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway, they are guilty of an offence. In such cases the Highway Authority has legal powers to enforce their removal.” On the face of it the actions of Caroline Lucas along with the other people she was with do fit this description. Her arrest as she knew, has led to the opportunity to tell her story and perhaps more importantly her concerns about fracking to listeners and viewers. Inevitably beyond the discussion that my MP will be having over the next few days on broadcast and print media, there has been a great deal of discourse or perhaps discord on social media channels involving people who are well known to Caroline and the other protesters along with plenty of comments from those who don’t know these folk. There has been criticism of Caroline for seeking publicity by people who are themselves happy to seek publicity for their own causes and defence of her actions by people who have also previously breached the law based on the Haringey text along with a great deal in between.
The challenge for all of us is to make sense of fracking and how it could benefit or harm us, and then try to understand how our own views can be taken into account in what should be a public debate. Any hope for an open debate on fracking cannot have been helped by some of the definitive announcements made by a few of our elected representatives such as David Cameron and George Osborne who have attempted to reassure us by claiming its efficacy and importance, far too prematurely. Equally there are people who will have found some of the actions and words of those protesting alongside Ms Lucas intimidating and lacking in openness in the opposite direction. This technology will either be stopped in its tracks or else could become a core part of our energy supply within a generation depending on a number of factors. One of those factors should include a level of true public discourse and this debate must involve those who live on a permanent basis in the areas concerned. This raises at least two issues, one of which is particular to Balcombe, although may well apply to other areas earmarked for test drilling.
The first is the need to ensure that any planning requirements for drilling such as at Balcombe is on similar terms as those for erecting structures such as wind turbines. Whilst a drilling site may not be a permanent structure, the impact on a community as evidenced in this case is nevertheless very substantial. It has been reported by others that local opposition to wind turbines has much more of an impact than any opposition to drilling sites, this seems to be unreasonable. The second issue is one that I think has been missed in all of the other reporting. The extent to which many people can hope to engage with the discussions on fracking, is in part affected by their access to the internet and specifically the availability of broadband. The village of Balcombe has a community website which shows a picture of the village under a layer of snow. One of the issues that this website raises is that unlike neighbouring Lindfield, the 600 homes in Balcombe have no access to superfast broadband. In the debate about this weeks climate camp I have seen conflicting reports regarding the views of the villagers on the issue of fracking. What does not seem in any doubt is that like many rural villages they do want the broadband services that many of us are fortunate enough to take for granted. Bearing in mind the miles of cable across the village to service the media circus, perhaps someone could put BT under a bit of extra pressure to upgrade the exchange to enable the villagers to take a fuller part in the debate that should be theirs by right.