Bill Acraman is the Conservative county councillor for Balcombe and lives in neighbouring Staplefield. He opposes fracking. In April, he asked for a decision on Cuadrilla’s latest planning application to be postponed to address issues he felt hadn’t be answered adequately.
Impact of drilling on Balcombe
It was, and still is, a very decisive thing and it did result in a number of personal conflicts which hadn’t been there before.
People didn’t like the banners going up on houses.
There are quite a lot of reasonably well-off people in Balcombe that commute to London to work. They didn’t like their peace being disturbed. That generated what I call the anti-anti frackers.
The farming community, particularly those who farm along the London Road, were upset by the anti-frackers. On a number of occasions they couldn’t get into their fields. They were probably more virulent than your retired city businessman was.
Nobody liked the stopping of vehicles moving up and down.
There was also annoyance about traffic going past the school. There was a deal that Cuadrilla would not try and move vehicles during arrival at school, the lunch hour, and four oclock in the afternoon. That deal collapsed once or twice and that upset people.
An awful lot of people didn’t like people camping on the verges. [The people at the camp], did actually clear it up pretty well. Obviously the grass churned up and you could see where the fires were but there was actually very little litter.
If you drive down there now you can see where it was but you would not regard it as a heavy eye sore. One more year of grass growth and it will be invisible.
There were too many police on a number of occasions.
We were knee-deep in coppers, more there than a cup final. That actually annoyed both sides.
I think the village were not 100 per cent happy with the way the police handled it. It’s not a matter of trust, it’s about did they administer it right? I think the police over-anticipated. They over-reacted.
In the early days there was a lot of criticism of the parish council. People said: “I’m not being allowed to make my protest”. People thought the parish council was up for the drilling – they weren’t. In my view, Alison Stevenson [parish council chair] did a marvellous job.
I think people respected setting up the big meeting [by West Sussex County Council] in the church. And I think on the whole they were happy with the way it was managed. An awful lot of people thought the county council had real powers in this. All the county council can decide is the planning permission.
The Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, seemed to think that this was not as serious an issue as it was.
It took quite a bit of arm twisting to get them to turn out to do the meetings in Balcombe. Louise Goldsmith [the leader of West Sussex County Council] had to press them to send the right senior people, which in the end they did, with a degree of reluctance.
I don’t think they had paid enough attention to the scientific case for or against fracking. They didn’t score an awful lot of points with me. But they’ve learned their lesson after the event.
I think I would mark it “could have been better”.
We needed information. It was very difficult to get facts out of people. I know that the planning officers, when this started, knew absolutely nothing about fracking. And that was an uphill struggle. The wider anti-fracking community had very much a head start. They had a number of meetings well over a year ago.
Pro or anti fracking?
I’m against fracking for one very simple reason: there is not enough reliable believable science that the non-scientist can understand. It’s not yet on the table.
My initial attitude was I don’t know anything about this. Now I know more about it, I am firmer in the view that the science is not proven either way. And therefore firmer in my view that I am against it until the scientific case is made to my satisfaction.
I don’t have any problem at all if they are just drilling without fracking because there must be a dozen or more oil wells in Sussex already.
I also don’t have a problem with the geography of the site at Balcombe. If you turn off the road, you go 100 yards, 200 yards, there are trees everywhere. And I don’t really have a problem about the highway issue. At Singleton, they must have lorries going in and out. I’ve never heard anyone going balmy over it.
Nobody trusts Cuadrilla.
They have changed the goalposts. They’ve been caught lying on more than one occasion, they’ve pushed the envelope wherever it will stand being pushed and beyond in some instances.
They started off, and I think they’ve learned their lesson too, thinking that this was Texas wildcat country and if they were big enough and tough enough they would bring John Wayne in and it would happen. They definitely started off with the presumption that they would not meet any sort of problem.
Will the divisions in Balcombe heal?
Yes. There will be a rump who still feel aggrieved on both sides. But it will wither away to 10 or a dozen people on both sides of the argument.
In the first instance the surveys were handled rather amateurishly. The parish council did a bit of a survey. The anti-frackers did another – and that’s when they came up with 84% were against fracking.
The parish council were determined there had to be a better survey. I said look if you are going to do a proper survey, it will cost you money, and the people to do it are the Electoral Reform Society. They bought that suggestion and that is what happened. It was a professionally done survey.
Advice to other communities
Do a proper survey, professionally organised with the Electoral Reform Society. It is going to cost but it has to be done.