Kirby Misperton: On the frontline of the Fracking debate

Kirby Misperton has found itself at the heart of the controversial fracking debate. Chris Bond visited the quiet North Yorkshire village to gauge the mood.

An anti-fracking poster on the garden gate of a house in Kirby Misperton, in Ryedale.( Picture: Anna Gowthorpe).

IT IS one of those all too rare, sun-blushed summer days when you can see why people up sticks and move to the countryside.

It’s early afternoon in Kirby Misperton and the bright montbretias and fuchsias in the neatly tended gardens on Main Street are swaying gently in the breeze.

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Nestled here in the heart of Ryedale, a few miles south of Pickering, you can, from certain vantage points, see the thick purple carpet of heather now in full bloom on top of the North York Moors in the distance.

Like any quintessential English village Kirby Misperton has a church, a post office and a pub. There’s a notice board halfway down the street keeping you up to date with what’s happening - everything from Tai Chi classes for beginners, to a forthcoming organ recital in nearby Lastingham.

It is a tranquil place and apart from the bevy of starlings and finches noisily raiding the numerous garden bird feeders, the only sound wafting through the trees comes from nearby Flamingo Land.

The nearest many people will have been to the village (aside from family jaunts to the popular holiday resort) is when they drive along the A64 as they make a beeline for the east coast.

It’s not the kind of place that gets into the news. At least it didn’t used to be.

The only inkling that perhaps all is not well in the village are the occasional “Frack Free Ryedale” placards tied to gateposts. You get the distinct feeling that this is the calm before the storm.

During the past couple of years the fracking frontline has shifted to different parts of the country and right now it’s the turn of Ryedale and, in particular, Kirby Misperton.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. It has revolutionised the energy industry in the United States but it’s also led to environmental concerns.

It has become an issue in our country because reserves of shale gas have been identified across swathes of the UK, particularly in the north of England, and this gas is seen as a possible answer, at least in part, to the vexed question of where we are going to get our energy from in the future.

Parts of Yorkshire are considered prime sites for the use of the controversial mining method and North Yorkshire County Council is currently considering an application to carry out test-fracking at Kirby Misperton.

Campaigners argue fracking, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations deep underground to release gas deposits, poses serious environmental risks.

Experts in the energy industry say concerns about contamination and potential harm to people’s health are unfounded and point to various international studies that back this up.

John Dewar, operations director of Third Energy, the company behind the Kirby Misperton application, has repeatedly insisted that public concerns are misplaced. And yet every attempt by the industry to gain a foothold in the UK has come up against vocal opposition.

The Government, though, appears to have nailed its colours to the mast with David Cameron having declared it is going “all out” for shale gas mining. This rhetoric is being backed up by action after it emerged earlier in the week that the decision over whether fracking in Yorkshire’s countryside gets the go-ahead could be taken out of local hands under new measures.

Ministers are being given the power to decide individual planning applications for fracking sites even before the local council has taken a view.

The Government is also taking over responsibility for all fracking applications from councils which repeatedly delay decisions. It comes amid concerns amongst ministers that attempts to kick-start the shale gas mining industry are being undermined by councils’ slow decision making.

However, critics claim the Government is trying to bypass legitimate local opposition. In Kirby Misperton there is deep rooted opposition to these plans and you could probably count the number of local residents in favour of fracking on the fingers of one hand.

Raymond French, a retired senior local government officer, only moved to the village earlier this year, by which time the anti-fracking campaign was well under way.

He feels the village is divided into two camps - those who are concerned about the impact fracking might have but are resigned to it happening, and those vehemently opposed to it. “There is a significant body of opposition here as well as a fair amount of apathy,” he says.

Writing in this newspaper yesterday, Sir Bernard Ingham referred to “the rag bag of so-called environmentalists trying to stop fracking in Ryedale”. But speaking to some local residents in and around Kirby Misperton you get a sense that there is genuine concern among ordinary people about what impact it may have.

Sarah Houlston is a mother of two who lives a mile or so outside the village. She and her husband, Stephen, run a 300-acre arable and livestock farm. Stephen is the fourth generation of his family to farm this land but Sarah is worried about what might happen in the future.

She is concerned about a number of issues, including bore holes on her land becoming contaminated and whether they will be able to get insurance if their land became polluted in the future.

Sarah and several other campaigners felt compelled to join their local parish council in order that their voice would be heard. “This is the first time in my life that I’ve become fully engaged in politics. I’m no eco warrior but it just feels like we are being dictated to.”

Ultimately, she’s worried about the long term legacy if fracking in Kirby Misperton gets the go-ahead. “I’ve got two young children and one of my biggest worries is what they will inherit from all this?”

Many residents are worried about the noise pollution and the potential day to day impact on people’s lives. There are fears, too, that this picturesque corner of North Yorkshire will be spoiled.

It has led to charges of nimbyism from some quarters. However, Sue Gough, who lives in nearby Little Barugh, says most campaigners are against fracking full stop, not just because it might be happening on their doorstep.

“I would fight this if it was 50 miles away. I don’t think it’s right for the UK, or anywhere on the planet.

“If the well in Kirby Misperton gets the go-ahead it will open the floodgates for the industrialisation of the Ryedale countryside, an area that relies on farming and tourism as its main revenue,” she says.

It may still be summer, but it feels like a winter of discontent is already brewing in Kirby Misperton.