No truly democratic institution could have passed Third Energy’s application to frack at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire last month. The 4,375 objections gave the County Council a 99.2 percent mandate to vote against. There was almost a day and a half of speeches against. The Tory-controlled planning committee received barristers’ letters and scientific papers detailing health and environmental risks.
Evidence from fracked communities in the US included a nine-mile moratorium around a town whose inhabitants have methane outlet pipes in their gardens and can’t drink the water. New York’s elected representatives, who banned fracking last summer, begged our planning committee to put the health of the people first. Even the landed gentry weighed in with an open anti-fracking letter in the county press. And 1,000 of us rallied in the grounds of County Hall on the first day of the hearing.
I list all this to show the scale of the injustice. But I could just have mentioned Ryedale District Council’s five-year moratorium on fracking. That should have been the end of it. Instead, on the second day of the hearing, NYCC’s planning committee voted seven to four to accept the application, throwing the people of Ryedale to an industry that contaminates water, land and air, destroys the environment and accelerates climate change. In the process they opened the application floodgates across the “desolate north”.
The Tories desperately needed that win in North Yorkshire. Cuadrilla has been waiting two years to frack in Lancashire, Third Energy a year to frack at Kirby Misperton. Many fracking companies are hanging on by their accountants’ finger tips. They told the Tories last week that investor patience is not “limitless”. Energy minister Andrea Leadsom reassured them she would tackle planning delays head on. David Cameron must have spent the weekend whispering, perhaps even shouting, in the planning chairman’s ears. An independent councillor, John Blackie, said he hadn’t seen a planning office so in thrall to the applicant in 20 years of service.
But something else happened at the hearing. North Yorkshire finally understood what Lancashire campaigners already knew — there is no democracy for us. When councils take too long to make decisions, the Tories introduce a planning fast track. When councils vote applications down, they bring in the secretary of state. When protesters met the decision on Monday with chants of, “We say no! We say no!” the police issued a statement within minutes promising serious consequences for those that break the law.
Cameron is playing a dangerous game though. He has made fracking a fight about democracy. While that ranges the force of the state against us, it has also drawn huge anger and created resonance for the idea that we have common cause with other people fighting for truth and justice.
Increasingly strong links between local groups were already evident in Northallerton in the stripes of Lancashire-Nana yellow sewn onto Yorkshire Nanas’ pinnies. Many people also said we cannot fight this well-by-well. As they signed a petition calling on both the Green Party and the Labour Party to show a lead on fracking they said, “It’s too local. We’ll be overwhelmed. They’ll pick us off.” And, “We need someone in politics to give a lead. We need a proper campaign for a ban.” There was anger too that Labour has done so little, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal opposition.
This, as the outpouring of anger shows, could be the anti-frackers’ moment. Frack-Free Ryedale attracted 300 new members to its Facebook page in the 24 hours after the decision. Fracking affects us all: it is a direct and irreversible attack, for profit, on all that sustains us. If there isn’t a Frack Free group in your area, start one, even if it’s just a Facebook page. If you’re already involved make links with other campaigns, and start a (self-identifying) Nanas group. Nanas are a rallying cry and the visual motif of the campaign.
Make sure your union has a good policy on fracking and backs it up with action. Swap solidarity with anti-fracking activists. With the Tories so deeply divided over Europe and back-tracking on everything from forced academisation to TTIP and the NHS, it’s time to push them back on fracking too.
Kim Hunter is press officer for Frack Free Scarborough (personal capacity).