‘It just shouldn’t be there’: MP condemns fracking site

Published on Wednesday, 05 February 2014 14:35
Written by Daniel Mason

A potential fracking site in Greater Manchester is "manifestly unsuitable" and drilling there is causing "absolutely huge inconvenience" to residents and businesses, the local member of parliament has said.

Protesters have been camped for three months at Barton Moss in Salford, where energy company IGas is exploring below the surface for possible shale gas reserves – an industrial process Labour MP Barbara Keeley describes as "controversial and untested".

Keeley, in an interview with Govtoday, insists the scheme should "never have been brought into that part" of the region, adding: "If you think that there are meant to trillions of cubic metres of shale gas said to be in the north west, why start in an urban area with very poor access?"

There are a "whole variety of reasons" why the location is "manifestly unsuitable", she says, including the narrow road incompatible with heavy goods vehicles, the proximity of farms and "precious" green belt land, the airport and motorway on either side, and the nearby secure care unit for children.

"More than anything my constituents are living day in, day out with absolutely huge inconvenience," says Keeley – with falling house prices, rising insurance costs and potential health and environmental risks among the most pressing concerns.

Meanwhile the anti-fracking protest also makes it "very difficult" for locals, according to the Worsley and Eccles South MP. "I've got residents who get trapped in their homes, there are businesses where people can't visit them. Businesses are losing out very, very badly." Still, many people accept the disruption caused by protesters "because they don't want the process there".

Opinion on the subject is not uniform in the Labour party. Keeley's fellow Greater Manchester MP Graham Stringer, in a recent article, backed fracking at Barton Moss, saying that those who are opposed base their arguments on "myths that are easily shattered". His claims were then dismissed as "poorly researched and unscientific" by one on the protesters.

In any case, local taxpayers – whichever side of the argument they are on – are paying for the policing of the protest, says Keeley. There have been more than 100 arrests at the site, but the "massive police presence" is too much.

Each day there are between 60 and 150 officers on duty at a cost of around £45,000 a day, while the overall bill for policing a similar protest in Balcombe in West Sussex ran to £4m. "It just comes out of local budgets," says Keeley. "There's no central funding at all."

Despite the concerns of protesters and environmental groups, David Cameron has said his government will go "all out for shale". In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, he argued it could be a "fresh driver" for growth as well as providing cheaper, more secure energy.

But the prime minister should try having a fracking site in Witney and dealing with the problems faced by his constituents, says Keeley, "then see if he is so keen on it".

She also condemns Cameron's attempt to persuade councils to support shale exploration by allowing them to keep 100 per cent of the business rates raised from fracking schemes, instead of the usual 50 per cent.

It would mean giving the go-ahead for drilling could be worth up to £1.7m a time to cash-strapped local authorities. But incentives are "just wrong" when councils have a regulation and monitoring role as the area's planning authority, says Keeley.

"My local authority has had £100m cut from its budget. They shouldn't be saying, 'well here's a tempter, if this shale gas goes ahead you'll get so much in business rates'." In any case, she adds, the costs of policing protests at fracking sites are "much, much more" than any sweetener offered by government.

Despite Cameron's charm offensive, a YouGov poll commissioned by the University of Nottingham and published last week found that support for fracking among the British public has fallen – though more than half do still back the process.

According to the latest figures, 53 per cent of people are now in favour of fracking and 27 per cent are opposed, compared with 58 per cent and 18 per cent respectively in July 2013. With another energy firm, Cuadrilla, just yesterday announcing plans to explore two more potential fracking sites in Lancashire, the debate is only likely to hot up.

Keeley says she is "not surprised" by the gradual movement against shale as "people are presented with facts". What the protests in her constituency have succeeded in doing is "bringing the issue to the people".

"This was not very well understood by local people, there was no real explanation as to what was going on locally. I think as the weeks go by they do understand this very much more than they did before."

At the time the first stage of planning permission was given for the Barton Moss site, in 2010, "nobody was expert", which put a "great burden" on the local authority that had to make the decision, she adds.

"How could they know what they were letting themselves and the community in for? In every sense I'm sure that everyone who lives around there will profoundly wish it would all just go away." She concludes: "It just shouldn't be there."

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