Statement by John Ashton
I am grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to address this meeting. The decision you face has aroused strong feelings. You and your officials have gone to great lengths to allow all voices to be heard. I for one applaud that, whatever decision you take.
I was invited to speak by Joanne White, on behalf of members of the community in Ryedale. I am grateful to Jo and her friends for giving up their speaking time so that I can make this statement. It is a heavy responsibility.
And though I was honored by their invitation, I hesitated to accept it.
My Mum is seriously ill, and I have until today set everything else aside so that I can look after her full time, in Newcastle.
That’s where I spent my childhood, and now I live in London. So in North Yorkshire I am only your guest.
You represent the people and communities of North Yorkshire. This decision concerns, above all, the economy, society, character and countryside of North Yorkshire. Your priority has to be the interests of North Yorkshire.
It is not for me to come motoring down the A1 from beyond Scotch Corner and tell you what North Yorkshire’s interests are.
But your decision will have implications beyond North Yorkshire. As a guest who wants the best both for our country and for this precious part of it, I do have a view on how the national interest has become entangled with the local one at Kirby Misperton. With your permission I would like to set out that view: not to tell you your business, but as a point of reference that will, I hope, help you in your deliberations.
I speak only for myself. I do not represent any organization or special interest. I am not a professional lobbyist or campaigner. I am on nobody’s payroll, and aside from petrol money nobody is paying me to be here today.
I simply try to use my voice as best I can, from a position of independence and drawing on my experience over nearly forty years in and around government, to contribute to our national debate. That experience incidentally includes two years when it was my privilege to serve as Special Representative for Climate Change for William Hague – now Lord Hague of Richmond – when he was Foreign Secretary.
I speak often about fracking because the choice it puts before us as a nation is a strategic one. It goes to the heart of our security and prosperity, of our place in the world, and of how we govern ourselves.
At one level, these proceedings are about whether to allow fracking at a single site in Ryedale.
But if you give a green light to Third Energy, that would be a shot in the arm for an industry that has been trying unsuccessfully for years to break down the opposition of communities and local authorities to the prospect of intensive shale gas production up and down our country.
A green light for Third Energy here would bring that prospect closer. If that were not the case, nobody would be urging you, as The Times did yesterday, to say “yes” to Third Energy as a matter of national interest. A single installation cannot be a national interest unless it opens the way to something much bigger.
On the other hand, if the industry is frustrated here as it was last year in Preston, it will find it ever harder to convince its investors that it has a future in the UK.
It is claimed that we can open our doors to fracking without undermining our effort on climate change.
Those in the cake business will swear that you can have your cake and eat it. This ploy is not unknown in politics either. But repetition of something that is not true does not make it true.
To deal with climate change we need to move, very quickly, from a wasteful energy system based on fossil fuels to an efficient one that does not rely on coal, or oil, or gas. We know how to do that, we can afford it, it is becoming clear that it will cost us less and reward us more than any alternative, and we have made some progress towards it. But we have slowed down in recent years and we are falling behind our competitors from Germany to China and now the US.
We could try to open up a whole new onshore gas industry based on so-called unconventional extraction methods including fracking, with its infrastructure, supply chains, skills base, and its inevitable reflex to lobby the government of the day to facilitate its further growth.
But that would take us backwards not forwards on climate. Here in the UK it would not displace much coal, if any. It would divert investment and political effort away from renewable energy, community energy, digital energy systems and energy efficiency. That’s where the real focus needs to be.
You can be in favour of fracking for shale gas in Britain. Or you can be in favour of dealing effectively with climate change. But you cannot be in favour of both at the same time. It really is that simple. I’m tempted, as a former climate envoy, to say “read my lips”.
It is claimed that this industry can insert itself seamlessly into the fabric of our communities and countryside, woven over centuries, without polluting the air and water, imposing intolerable burdens of noise and traffic, and jeopardizing our health.
Other, better qualified, speakers will address those topics later. But there are some considerations I find quite persuasive.
For example, there is a growing consensus among medical professionals that we cannot yet be confident that the risks to public health from fracking can be kept to acceptable levels.
Dr Tim Thornton of Ryedale, who will speak later, has put that case eloquently. And it is on these grounds that the State of New York, one of the best run States in the USA, has imposed a moratorium on fracking.
The public health case to put the brakes on fracking is not frivolous. Those making it are not frivolous people. They deserve to be listened to very carefully.
Moreover, advocates of fracking rarely draw attention to the risks to other sectors of the economy.
Here in North Yorkshire, farming and tourism provide more jobs than shale gas ever will. If I were considering whether to open the door to shale gas, I would first want to be really clear about the possible impact on farming and tourism – not least because both depend on reputations that take years to build up but can easily be lost overnight.
INEOS recently admitted (before mysteriously retracting it) that they might drill nearly 400 horizontal wells from 30 well sites in a single licensing block of less than seven miles side to side.
There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that this industry can operate at the scale it will demand without significant disruption to our countryside and to the communities that live in it. It is hard to imagine that here in North Yorkshire this would have no impact on your capacity to attract visitors and find markets for your premium farm products.
And beyond that, intensive fracking invariably changes the character of the places that accommodate it. It is for you and you alone to judge whether that would be a desirable change or an undesirable one. But as it takes its course, if it turns out to be unwelcome, people will surely say: “this began in Kirby Misperton; that’s where the people we trust to represent us could have stopped it”.
Then there is the “gold-plated regulation” that has been promised.
The truth is that the current framework relies heavily on the integrity and competence of the companies themselves. They are being invited to mark their own homework.
Experience in other sectors, from banking to pharmaceuticals, surely warns us that when you allow companies too much room to mark their own homework, they sometimes can’t resist the temptation to award themselves higher marks than their performance merits. They put their commercial interest ahead of the public interest if they think they can get away with it.
This particular industry has had ample opportunity to show that it will never yield to such temptations: to establish a reputation for accurate, honest forecasting, reporting and self-criticism when merited.
I have to say it may have had the opportunity but it has not exactly seized it.
In Lancashire, Cuadrilla was forced to admit earlier this year that the volume of flowback fluid from its proposed sites in The Fylde would actually be 400% greater than the estimate it published when it applied for planning permission. It put this down to a typographical error.
When asked what implications this would have for the truck movements necessary to take the fluid for treatment, the company declined to answer on grounds of commercial confidentiality, even though the question of truck movements is obviously a matter of public interest for people living in the vicinity of the sites.
Perhaps that kind of slip up is not surprising for an industry that in the UK is still immature and speculative. I do not know whether Third Energy has a better record than Cuadrilla of avoiding, admitting, and correcting errors. I do not want to do them a disservice. But if I were considering this application, I would certainly scrutinize their record very carefully.
Furthermore, it is claimed that we need this industry if we are to keep our lights on and our homes warm.
Actually, we do not have an energy security problem in our country. What we have is an energy investment problem, and that is largely the result of incoherence over many years in the policies of successive governments, across the political spectrum.
Shale gas cannot solve that energy investment problem, for a simple reason.
Even if the resource under the Bowland Shale is as abundant as claimed; even if it can be extracted more easily and at less expense than many geologists suspect; even if we can put in place in record time the infrastructure, supply chains, skilled workforce and legal frameworks this would require; even if the gold plate never wears thin; even if we turn a deaf ear to all objections from disrupted communities – even then it would be another decade at least before gas might just be flowing on a scale necessary to make more than a marginal difference to our energy system.
Our energy investment problem is a real one. But we need to solve it today, not tomorrow, and in the debate about how to do that, shale gas is a red herring. There will for a while be a role for gas, but it will largely be conventional gas, and there is more than enough of it. Some of it incidentally will still come from the North Sea, despite spin to the contrary from some in the shale gas industry.
I have one more observation about the national interest. There is a heated debate about whether we should have fracking or other unconventional extraction of oil and gas in West Sussex and in Surrey, in the South Downs and in the Weald.
It is a widely held view in Westminster – I’m sure you’ve noted it – that these places are simply too iconic to risk the disruption that fracking might bring. Many of those who argue that the development of shale gas is nevertheless a vital national interest hold that view. They then try to find a way out of their own contradiction by saying that fracking should, of course, take place not in the south but in the north.
In saying this, they want to have their cake while eating yours. If fracking for shale gas really were a vital national interest, how could it be a national interest in Lancashire or North Yorkshire but not in Surrey or Sussex?
The self-proclaimed national interest case for fracking has not emerged from a genuine national conversation. There is no consensus forged on a shared view of the problems we face and serious analysis of the possible solutions. It is the top-down product of speculative opportunism by those who think they can make money from it, and expediency on the part of those who seem to see it as a way of solving short-term political problems in Westminster and Whitehall.
And that incidentally is not a partisan point. It has applied at various times on both sides of our politics.
For nearly forty years I worked closely, as a diplomat, adviser, and latterly in a quasi-political role as an envoy, with politicians and policymakers. It saddens me to say that shale gas is far from the only issue on which I have seen a gap opening up between the real national interest and the tendency of those either in power or opposition or both to bend it to help them deal with narrower and more partisan stresses.
And, even more sadly, this is happening now more than it ever has in my lifetime. That is the fundamental reason why our political class as a whole is regarded with such suspicion, and why it is getting ever harder to bring our divided country together to build the sense of common purpose we so desperately need.
The truth is that there is no national interest in fracking. To embark on this endeavour, on the contrary, would be a betrayal of the national interest, and a distraction from what we really need to do if we want to become more prosperous, secure, confident, democratic and united as a nation than we have been in recent years.
I have seen at first hand how this debate has developed up and down our country, in the Central Belt of Scotland; in Lancashire, Greater Manchester, and in Cheshire; and yes, in Surrey and West Sussex. Each locality is different, but there is a thread that runs through all of them.
Precisely because we have had no national conversation, people might not immediately grasp how fracking might affect them. But they come together, in living rooms, kitchens, pubs, community centres and village halls. They inform themselves, and they pool their expertise, which is often considerable.
And the more each community starts to realize what might be coming their way, the more uncomfortable it becomes, and the more it mobilizes against it.
This is not kneejerk Nimbyism, as is often claimed. In my experience, when there really is a national interest at stake, people want to pull together and do their bit. I’m sure they do here in North Yorkshire.
But our history has taught us to recognize a pig in a poke when we see one, and that is what people do see when they take a close look at what is on offer in the case of fracking.
They don’t see a national interest, because there isn’t one. They do see a project in which they will be expected to bear the costs and the risks, while people from a long way away, with no stake in their communities, stand to reap any rewards.
And if this were Nimbyism, we would be talking about a rather big Back Yard. When it covers such a large part of our country, what some people try to label as Nimbyism actually becomes the will of the people.
Not since the poll tax have we seen an issue with this kind of power to stir feelings of alienation and resentment towards overbearing, overcentralized power.
And the same pattern can be seen here, in and around Ryedale. As the decision you are about to take has approached, people have become better informed and more opposed.
Like Tim Thornton, Jo White and her friends are not frivolous people. Local landowners like Sir Richard Storey are not frivolous people: as landowners they understand better than most what is of real value in the ground beneath their feet. Businesses like Flamingoland are not run by frivolous people: they have to have a deep understanding of what is likely to attract their visitors and what may deter them.
And public figures like Baroness McIntosh are not frivolous people. Indeed it is sometimes wise to pay special heed to those whose careers are no longer at the mercy of central party machines. Those lower down the political ladder might be more tempted to try to impose the will of the centre on North Yorkshire, rather than making sure that the voice of North Yorkshire is heard at the centre.
I have to say I do not envy you the position you are in today, as you sit in judgement listening to all sides of this argument.
Your Planning Officers have recommended a green light. But it is you not they who would have to justify this to the people you represent.
The government in Westminster, even while blowing its bugles of localism, has put Planning Committees like yours under massive, indeed unreasonable, pressure to give a green light to fracking. The rules and guidelines to which they have subjected you point strongly in that direction, and there is a threat that if you defy them Ministers will overturn your decision anyway.
But Ministers and officials in Westminster and Whitehall do not have to justify your decision to your people here in North Yorkshire.
Over the centuries, throughout our history, there has been an ebb and flow in the struggle between localized and centralized power; between, if you like, the notions that the decisions that affect us should either be taken with us or done to us.
More than 1300 years ago, at the Synod of Whitby, under the stern but motherly gaze of St Hilda, the centralized and centralizing power of the Roman Church prevailed over the locally grounded Celtic tradition embodied by St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. St Cuthbert loved his adopted people and in return he is still much loved across what is now Northumberland. He was a childhood hero of mine.
This meeting may not turn out to be quite as momentous as the Synod of Whitby. Who knows? But the drama about to be enacted is not so different. And today you are centre stage in that drama.
Whenever any gathering of representatives is called upon to make a choice, the same questions echo down the centuries. Who decides and for whom? And above all: whose side are you on?
Last summer, in Preston, it was widely expected that your counterparts would give a green light to Cuadrilla. Down in Westminster, both main Parties hoped for a green light, albeit for different reasons. Members of the Lancashire County Council Development Control Committee found themselves, like you, in an impossible position.
The Committee surprised everyone by rejecting Cuadrilla’s application. I believe they did that because many of them felt they were being expected to act as a rubber stamp. Responsibility was being forced on them just as power was being taken away.
The stand they took, in the end, was not I suspect merely a stand against fracking in The Fylde. It was a stand for our carefully balanced English democracy that has grown up over generations. They are each one of them agents of that democracy, and by virtue of their position they hold it in trust. They refused to do the bidding of others who had no roots in their communities, of others who were not directly accountable to those communities, of others who were asking them to betray the trust that those communities had placed in them.
We are on the other side of the Pennines today. But the issue in the end is the same. And that is why, just as I wish you good fortune in your deliberations, I very much hope, for the good of our country as well as North Yorkshire, you will give Third Energy not a green light but a red one.