You would be hard pushed to find a more peaceful setting. A crooked public footpath signpost leads you down a potholed pebble track past open fields of golden stubble and grazing cattle with only the sound of birds to break the silence.
The tranquillity of this quintessentially English scene on a warm August afternoon gives no hint of the conflict that this site is stirring up within the local community. The picturesque and popular tourist destination on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, in the north of England, is just one of several sites in the UK that has been given over to frack for shale gas.
It is currently the only live application following North Yorkshire County Council’s decision at the end of July to validate the planning application by global corporation Third Energy to start a British fracking industry here in the district of Ryedale. The plan threatens to divide the community of Kirby Misperton. As well as protest marches and meetings, the debate rages on social media and in the letters pages of the local and regional press.
The chair of the village’s parish council, Paul Wicks, is well aware of the devastating effect that the fracking proposal is having on the local community. “While there are many in Kirby Misperton who are opposed to fracking, this view isn’t universal in the village,” he explains. “The application has introduced a tension in the village between those who are opposed and those who believe the process can be managed safely and that there is a national need for more gas that overrides any local concerns. This tension is not good for our community. I would really like local people to be well informed about what is proposed and to be able to have a proper say in whether they want this for their local community. However, it is very difficult to separate facts from opinions.”
Pro and anti camps emerge
In a recent development, a campaign group supporting Third Energy and the gas industry in Ryedale has emerged. FORGE, or Friends of Ryedale Gas Exploration, backs the fracking application and believes the area should be proud of its long association with the gas industry and the part it plays in creating jobs and business opportunities.
The main opposition to Third Energy’s proposal comes from Frack-Free Ryedale, which is fighting plans by Third Energy, which is owned by a subsidiary of Barclay’s Bank, to start fracking. Frack-Free Ryedale fears the impact extracting this fossil fuel will have on the environment, both locally and globally.
“It is ultimately the lives of ordinary people living here that are being affected and destroyed,” says artist Sue Gough, who runs Frack Free Kirby Misperton, one of nine local Frack Free groups.
We don’t like this attitude of we won’t know how safe it is until we try.
Sue lives a mile from the proposed fracking site at Kirby Misperton and I am speaking to her the day after the UK government has granted 27 more licences to frack across 1,000 square miles of English countryside, mainly in the north-east and north-west of England. The proposed drilling site is already an established well site and is less than half a mile south of Kirby Misperton, a village until now better known as the home of Flamingoland Leisure Park and Zoo, the most visited paid-for attraction in North Yorkshire.
“It’s been quite a gentle campaign with much of the debate taking place in the local pub,” says Gough. “I think because gas companies have been extracting gas here for years people aren’t always concerned at first. But fracking for shale gas is completely different from conventional gas extraction. I often get into conversation about fracking in the local pub. Quite often the person I am talking to hasn’t thought too much about it, then when I explain more about it they start to look worried. What we are concerned about in the short term is the noise, the light pollution and traffic. In the long term we are worried about particles being emitted and seeping into the soil, which will affect agriculture and livestock. We don’t like this attitude of we won’t know how safe it is until we try. The establishment are doing all they can to keep this all under wraps.”
I tell Gough I am surprised not to see more anti-fracking posters in the village itself and around the site. “We are in the process of printing more posters, bigger posters,” says Gough. “We are getting more people involved and are planning more meetings to inform people what is happening.”
The boundary of KM8, as the potential fracking site is known, is surrounded by a natural screening and apart from a few weather-beaten planning application notices pinned to telegraph poles and a couple of Third Energy’s “Keep out” signs, the site currently looks fairly inconspicuous.
Perhaps it’s the fact that there has been an existing well site at Kirby Misperton for more than 20 years that makes some people living local to the site appear ambivalent. This is what prompted local businesswoman Lorraine Allanson to set up the pro-fracking group, FORGE in July this year. Her motivation, she says, was having lived through a similar situation 20 years ago when planning permission was submitted to build the nearby Knapton Generating Station.
“The gas industry is an inherent part of the economy here in Ryedale and now has the chance to develop in a way that will benefit the whole community,” says Allanson, who runs an award-winning B&B and self-catering cottages a few miles from Kirby Misperton. “The Knapton Generating Station was to be, and still is, the largest electricity generating station in its use of onshore gas in the UK. Back then we were deluged with protesters who said the same as the anti-fracking movement is proclaiming now. We were told it would destroy our livelihood of farming and tourism. I lived through the fear of deadly gas clouds over the valley, death of livestock, crop failure and tourists not wanting to come to Ryedale. Not one of those things materialised. The long, tedious propaganda game that the anti movement uses in such situations is cruel and very stressful to the local population.”
Recently letters in the press have got more personal in tone between the anti and pro-fracking supporters, while comments below the stories are even more vitriolic.
The letters pages of the daily newspaper, The Yorkshire Post, and the local weekly, The Gazette and Herald, feature a regular stream of letters from local people about Third Energy’s proposal to frack. Some are directed at Third Energy and at the local Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, Kevin Hollinrake, who admits that fracking is the biggest issue in his constituency. But, more recently, some letters have got more personal in tone between the anti and pro-fracking supporters. The comments below the online newspaper stories are even more vitriolic, with some accusing the anti-fracking groups of NIMBYism (“not in my back yard” mentality), in only caring about house prices over the environment.
Chris Redston of Frack Free Ryedale is quick to counter this accusation. “One myth about Frack Free is that of NIMBYism. It’s more a case of NOOP - not on our planet. There is great environmental solidarity between groups, not just in the UK but around the world.” He says that most of Frack Free’s 2,000 plus members are retirees. “Geriactivists, if you like. I would say 50% of our members are retired.”
FORGE’s members are also from the more mature age group, says Allanson, as well as former employees of the gas industries. “I receive support from many who have lost their jobs due to campaigners who swayed the decision in Lancashire to not allow hydraulic fracturing. Their actions have affected people’s livelihoods right now. These people are proud and wish to work. I ask how many jobs do the protesters create?”
With so much opposition to fracking at local, national and international levels - fracking is banned in France, Germany and New York, with plans for a ban in Holland - why do people actively support it and who is funding the pro-fracking groups?
“I decided to initially fund FORGE myself,” says Allanson, whose adverts feature in the local press. “I have since received some other small donations from ordinary people. Why is that so difficult for the anti-fracking campaigners to accept?”
Jobs, or not?
FORGE feels that some people may be afraid to emerge as supporters because of the huge opposition to fracking. “People I talk to are afraid to stick their heads above the parapet,” says Allanson. “But many sensible people realise we need to do this if we believe in energy security and creating our own home-grown industry in the UK”.
She admits that the initial test frack will not create many local jobs, but says it is in the future that Ryedale will benefit. “We need to be ready to offer the kind of services the exploration company will require. These range from engineering, ground works, accommodation and food suppliers. This will create many indirect jobs. This area needs investment. There are few opportunities for new ventures in our area.”
Redston disagrees that the fracking industry will create new jobs. “It will create zero new jobs. The government’s energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd talks of 60,000 new jobs being created across the UK, but that’s not exactly a jobs boom. There would need to be thousands of wells for a jobs boom.”
Clearly, the situation in Ryedale is just one example of how global exploration for fossil fuels by huge multinational corporations is having a significant and complex effect on what were once tightly knit communities.
Local people have no power to decide for themselves what they think is best for their local community.
Wicks says he has learned a lot since Third Energy’s announcement to proceed with a planning application to frack in November 2014. “I have read many articles both in favour and against, and taken time to come to my own conclusions. I will concede that it might be possible to do hydraulic fracturing safely, that the fears of contamination, earthquakes, silicosis, industrialisation of the countryside, devastation of local tourism and dropping house prices might never happen, but I do not think it is necessary to take the risk.”
Having had its planning permission validated, the next stage for Third Energy is to await the outcome of an application to the Environment Agency for two permits. These relate to how the well-site operates mainly in dealing with things like disposing of waste, groundwater activity and monitoring of radioactive substances. Once the company has these permits their application will go to a planning meeting at North Yorkshire County Council in November.
In all that is happening, what Wicks finds particularly aggravating is that there is no democratic way for local people or local government to decide if fracking should be allowed in a particular area. “The message from central government is that they could override any planning decision made by the county council, while the district council was unable to agree a form of wording that said they were opposed to fracking in Ryedale - even if they had, it wouldn’t mean the district council could prevent fracking in Ryedale.
“This all leaves local people who are opposed to fracking with a sense of powerlessness and the parish council with no power to decide what is best for the local community. So I am cross that local people have no power to decide for themselves what they think is best for their local community, I am cross that the cohesion of our local community is being threatened by this proposal and I am cross that the needs of rural communities always seem to be ignored. And I do wonder if I could be more effective in opposing fracking if I were not chairman of the local parish council.”
With opinion so divided, it is hard to see an outcome that won’t leave people in this community feeling deeply aggrieved at a planning process which they feel has failed to listen to their voices.