Nick Herbert: The drive for shale has got off to a bad start

Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert
Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert
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There was good news for the West Sussex countryside last week when the County Council turned down an application by Celtique Energie to drill between Wisborough Green and Kirdford.

There was further welcome news this week when the Government announced that fracking will not take place in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty other than in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that it is in the public interest.

As I have said repeatedly, it may indeed be in the national interest to exploit a new source of energy, but landscapes like the South Downs are specially protected in the national interest, too.

The Government also said that if a fracking company appeals against a council which has turned down an application to drill in a protected area, the decision will go to the Communities and Local Government Secretary himself - a sign that Ministers expect the presumption against fracking to be upheld. I was also encouraged that countryside ‘adjacent’ to these protected areas will be covered by the policy. This will be important for villages like Wisborough Green and Kirdford, where the proposed drilling site is very close to the National Park.

With this new guidance, if Celtique appeal against the county council’s decision, they should be unsuccessful. Outside of protected areas, the industry must choose drilling sites more carefully to avoid lorry movements through villages.

Celtique Energie failed to provide accurate information on traffic to assuage the community’s biggest concern. Instead, their chief executive branded West Sussex objectors as ‘selfish and unpatriotic’. He then dismissed the county council’s decision as ‘politically motivated’.

The oil and gas industry could not have wished for a worse advocate for its earliest fracking applications.

There needs to be better information about what fracking entails, including open and honest information from the industry about issues such as lorry movements.

With Russia’s aggression in the news, it’s not hard to appreciate the case for increasing our energy security, but the drive for shale has got off to a bad start.

West Sussex isn’t Texas, as the industry has discovered.

With this week’s announcement the new Energy Minister, Matt Hancock - an undoubted enthusiast for fracking - has demonstrated a subtler approach that better reflects realities in this country.

Now the industry needs to get a lot smarter, too.

If you would like to get in touch with me, please write to me at the House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA, or email me at nick@nickherbert.com.