Alison Stevenson is a civil engineer and has been a Balcombe Parish Councillor for 11 years, the last three as the chairman. Her family moved to Balcombe in 1971 when she was four years old and she’s been there on and off ever since. She is now bringing up her own family in Balcombe.
As Parish councillors, when we first became aware of the issue of fracking in Balcombe we were like rabbits in the headlights. We didn’t know what had hit us.
The first thing we did was to set up a working group, inviting people from the Parish with relevant knowledge and experience to come forward and join the group. We chose the people to be on it by a short CV we asked them to send us. Together we produced an eight-page document which was delivered to every house in Balcombe. It tried to establish and present the facts as the issue related to Balcombe in as unemotional a way as possible.
Fracking and the protests
There seemed to be no real consensus on the issue in the village. We had undertaken a poll and yet that itself became a subject of discord. It was very difficult.
Tensions rose more the bigger the protest got, with neighbour disagreeing with neighbour. Good friends began to be wary of each other. The subject was banned in the village social club! I thought Balcombe was unbreakable and I was wrong.
The atmosphere is better now. It is slowly healing. Nobody wants it to remain as unhappy a place as it had become. Most people recognise that being Balcombe is what matters most and that means being a wonderful community. But there are scars. Someone I know is leaving – they just could not stand it any longer.
There are resentments that will be there for a long time.
No Dash for gas camp
In the height of the summer last year, the parish council uninvited the No Dash for Gas camp to Balcombe. There were very real concerns that someone was going to get hurt: a protestor, a police officer or one of the drilling company employees.
In an effort to keep the peace, the Council erected five banners at the entry points to the village asking people to obey the law during the protest. Within hours of being put up, all but one was vandalised. The only banner that survived was on the site gate, flanked by the police. The banners had quoted the original poll figures and some people objected so much to that that they vandalised something meant to keep people safe.
I was ashamed of my village that day. But at the same time, it was a vivid illustration of the mixed feeling in the village and the level of tension.
After the camp, feelings were still running high. There were many more road blockades. Yellow ribbons [the symbol of opposition to Cuadrilla] were increasingly removed as they were put up. Posters were taken down. Fracking became secondary to the protest issue in village discussions.
The attention of the world’s media had an effect as well. The tea shop and the shop did a roaring trade but it was all a bit surreal. At one point the Parish Council website was getting over 3,500 hits a day from about 70 countries. As the PC had lines of communication open with the agencies, police and Cuadrilla, the website was often the first with the news or an announcement.
The drilling operation went over agreed noise levels and there was a slow response to this from the company and West Sussex County Council. Noise monitoring is sub-let to the environmental health people at Mid Sussex District Council and duplicated in responsibility with the Environment Agency. It led to a slow process and it took four weeks to try a few solutions and get the noise monitoring analysed and abatement in place, which was a shame as the levels fell dramatically after baffles were placed.
It had been agreed with the PC and WSCC that site traffic would avoid going past the school at drop off and collection times. The protest turned that on its head as the police escorted vehicles when they were able to and the PC simply could not get that to stop.
At least vehicles were escorted and the police provided a PCSO at the gates to help with the crossing but it was an infuriating side-effect of the protest.
In October, the PC arranged a village meeting with the Environment Agency. We asked the Health and Safety Executive to co-present but no one was available. We used the Parish Church as it was the largest venue in the Parish.
In December, West Sussex County Council arranged a very similar meeting, again in the church, to explain the planning system as it relates to oil and gas extraction.
I think the County Council were also like rabbits in the headlights to start. No one had anticipated the strength of public opinion.
We have been treated a bit like royalty by them since the protests.
Second Parish Council poll
The Parish Council undertook a second poll in February and the results are more balanced. Those voting still indicated an opposition to fracking but it’s at a lower percentage than the previous poll and seems to be more like the figures we expected from what people were saying to us.
I hope that the poll will make people more tolerant of each other’s views. I think it has had an effect in calming things.
Latest planning application
As a result of this poll, the PC made a formal objection to the latest test flow application.
The application was passed and the PC expects to be a part of Cuadrilla’s liaison group which is to be set up as a condition of the permission.
Advice to parishes in a similar situation
It’s been difficult at times not to just let rip but you have to keep cool.
Assess the risks, pass on information and listen to the people you represent. Be prepared to go against your own views and brace yourself for a roller coaster ride. It’s better not to overplay either the positives or the negatives. It has little real influence on decision-makers if you do, in fact it can work against you. We have tried to work with the agencies because we are a PC and it’s our role to do so. That has not been a course that sat well with some of our residents or the wider protest groups but we did stick to it.
For example Balcombe objected to the application but that had to be on real material planning considerations, which in Balcombe was difficult.
We were not there to be emotional, we were there to get the best we could from the system for the people who live here.