You read that headline right: the deeply subversive Guardian has suddenly found itself in unexpected alliance with the Mail, and the issue is that of shale gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The reason for the alliance is that fracking is no longer something that is happening hundreds of miles away, but is getting closer to London.
Yes, fracking, which had been confined to an area near the Fylde coast, where even exploratory wells had caused small earth tremors, has now come – potentially – to the West Sussex village of Balcombe. Cuadrilla Resources, the same company that fracked near Blackpool, says it may not frack, but then again, it may, and it is looking not just for gas in the shale, but oil.
All of this has been duly reported by the Guardian, but the constituency of curtain-twitching Middle England was having none of it until this morning, when the Mail On Sunday led with “Minister’s Doomsday Alert Over Fracking”, and moreover confirmed the seriousness of the issue by telling readers that the picture painted by Tory MP Michael Fallon had been “chilling”.
That means it’s at least as bad as anything suggested by Lord Justice Leveson, which may not be serious to most people, but for the inhabitants of Northcliffe House is positively apocalyptic. Fallon talked of “swathes of rural England shaking with the sound of drills as a result of the drive for shale gas ... ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive!’”
Why should the authentic voice of Middle England suddenly show environmental concern? Ah well. If fracking were to take place near Blackpool, not many Mail readers would be affected, and far less concerned. But Balcombe is the epitome of Mail land: the paper targets not only those who live there, but those who aspire to live there. And the Mail has understood one more fracking fact.
When this method of extraction has been used in the USA, the wells have been drilled where there are very few inhabitants: there is still a lot of open space outside the cities. Drilling in the south east will never be very far from a built up area. Fracking on a commercial scale will require dozens, maybe hundreds of wells to be drilled. Those living nearby, as Paul Dacre might have said, are Daily Mail readers.
So, just as the Mail doesn’t want HS2, or tens of thousands of houses on the green belt, or a planning free-for-all, now it’s moving to question fracking, having realised just how continually disruptive it could be. I mean, you only have to look at the effect on house prices – it could be worse for them than Labour winning the next General Election. Seriously, though, this is an important moment.
Just how close to London does fracking have to come before others join in?