Massive victory! West Sussex says we're 'not for shale'

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West Sussex's decision comes on the back of determined work by local anti-fracking groups
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West Sussex's decision comes on the back of determined work by local anti-fracking groups

The UK’s fracking juggernaut has just been forced off the road. Just after 12.30pm on Tuesday the planning committee of West Sussex County Council voted unanimously to reject Celtique’s application to drill deep into the heart of Sussex.

Celtique had chosen a site between Kirdford and Wisborough Green, on the fringe of the South Downs National Park. They wanted to drill down into shale deposits which they hoped to shatter through fracking. The shale remains intact, their plans are now shattered to smithereens. And the government’s dream of fracking across the country remains just that; a dream without meaningful backing from any local community and torn to pieces by expert analysis.

Celtique’s application at Wisborough Green was not well-supported, to say the least: 2,471 objections and only 18 in support. And on the day of the decision, the meeting room was packed to the rafters, so many people wanted to get in that you had to apply to get one of the 100 seats inside. Swanky chandeliers hung from the ceilings and an expectant murmur grew as the meeting approached.

The day before had seen hectic developments. Firstly, a new legal blockade was launched surrounding the proposed drill site at Wisborough Green, with local landowners exercising their rights to deny permission to drill beneath their homes.

A blockade had previously been formed at Fernhurst in West Sussex, also facing an application from Celtique. These blockades are such a headache for government and the industry that intense lobbying from the frackers has seen government proposals brought forward to tear up individual’s rights and gift them to the frackers to drill underneath your home without permission. However, this outrageous fix presents its own headache for government – the plans face opposition from 74% of the population, and even from its own MPs.

On top of this it all went a bit Marx Brothers at West Sussex County Council in the run-up to the meeting. The previous week the county's planners had recommended refusal of the application, a huge blow to Celtique’s ambitions. A key finding in the planner’s report was that Celtique had not produced a ‘realistic or accurate appraisal’ of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) traffic. Let me decode that: Celtique had cooked the books. They inflated a key measure so that the increase in HGV traffic was underestimated by almost 600%. Celtique claimed an 11-13% increase, whereas the raw data showed it could be 64%. Another giant own goal from Celtique, kings of the PR disaster.

Then the sabre-rattling and shenanigans began. Celtique threatened to throw their toys out of the pram as a result of the devastating recommendation, saying they’d withdraw their application and resubmit, or appeal. Despite this, Celtique responded late on Friday with new traffic information. This led the Council to announce on Monday morning that the decision would be deferred to another time, then shortly after this the council u-turned and said the decision would be taken at the meeting after all. Phew, keep up at the back!

So the meeting began. The councillors had made it clear they were in no mood to defer this decision, Celtique had been given many and full opportunities to make their case over a long period. Today was Judgement Day.

Speakers against the application spoke first, including a devastating presentation from geology Professor David Smythe who characterised Celtique’s application as 'incomplete, incompetent and disingenuous', going on to say their analysis was 'full of errors', failing to understand 'undergraduate elementary geology'. I could feel the winces from Celtique even six rows back.

Celtique inserted their foot in their mouth once again in their presentations to the planning committee, stating that they were carrying out conventional fossil fuel exploration, when everybody in the room knew, and Celtique’s CEO has clearly stated, that this was a prelude to unconventional extraction using fracking. The genteel folk of West Sussex did well to restrain themselves at this point, but dark muttering rippled around the room.

After the presentations, debate and clarifications took place. Slowly but surely the councillors revealed their positions. The refusal column on my notepad began to fill, whilst the approval column yawned empty. I did the maths, ‘one more needed’ I whispered to one of the landowners in the legal blockade sitting behind me.

And then it came, another councillor stated their opposition and it seemed a done deal. But would they have the courage of their convictions and vote to deny the application, knowing the whole country was watching them? The vote was called, all the hands shot up in the air and it was over – application refused! The room exploded, cheers, hugs, kisses, backslapping and smiles all around. A lot of anxiety, sweat, toil and tears had led to this moment, the sense of triumph and relief was tangible.

But the game is not quite over yet. Celtique may choose to appeal, even in the light of yesterday’s drubbing and castigation by opposition and councillors alike. They should be in no doubt the local communities and their supporters are determined to see this battle through to the very end.

This decision sets an example for other planning authorities, as all eyes now look ahead to two other key fracking battlegrounds. The South Downs National Park Authority faces an application by the discredited speculators at Celtique, who plan to drill in the National Park as a pre-cursor to fracking one of our great national resources. Please have your say here to ensure the Celtique juggernaut remains immobilised.

Just as important are two applications from Cuadrilla to frack in Lancashire at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood. Thousands of people have opposed these applications already, have your say on both of these battles now.

Let’s make Wisborough Green the moment when the nationwide shale bubble went pop. The other applications in Sussex and Lancashire represent the thin end of the wedge, thousands of wells are being lined up if the first applications get approved.

Send in your objections and stand up for an energy future that looks forward, exploiting the massive opportunities presented by renewable energy and stopping energy waste. Fracking belongs to the past, let's create a clean future we can be proud of.

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