THE back row traditionally hosts cheeky schoolchildren looking to dodge the teacher’s attention, or canoodling couples with only fleeting interest in the latest blockbuster.
As a Conservative county councillor sat on the back row of a public meeting hosted by anti-fracking campaigners, I should have perhaps expected a little more attention.
I arrived at St Peter’s Church House in my hometown of Norton, near Malton, on Friday night for one in a series of information meetings scattered across a vast chunk of North Yorkshire licensed for gas exploration by multi-national chemicals company INEOS.
I was there, not in my position as a councillor, but as a life-long Norton resident – genuinely open minded and eager to learn more about the fracking industry’s plans for my small corner of Ryedale.
But it wasn’t long until heads inevitably turned to the big, blue, Tory-shaped elephant at the back of room. “What are we hearing from within North Yorkshire County Council? Is there any change in their opinion?” asked one member of the public.
“Well… why don’t we ask our elected representative?” said my Liberal Democrat predecessor and event chairman David Lloyd-Williams with a grin that I had come to recognise as sign language for trouble.
With all eyes now pinned on me, I tentatively took to my feet. Unwittingly and reluctantly, I had been recruited to join an eclectic Q&A panel comprising, among others, The Honourable Nicholas Howard of Castle Howard, former Bishop of Maidstone the Reverend Graham Cray and Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth.
A cacophony of questions from all corners of the room was unleashed. “What is your opinion on fracking?” “How many of your County Council colleagues are ‘sat on the fence’?” “Did you vote for this?” “Did you vote for that?” “What about your boss Kevin Hollinrake MP?” And so on.
I frankly laid out my views as best as a complete non-expert making his first tentative steps to wade through the mire of fracking claim and counter-claim could.
I expect many others will have encountered the same difficult task of trying to make sense of completely contradictory arguments. Given that scientists, industry experts, and even green campaigners are split on the issue, I was starting to feel that it might be impossible to ever make head or tail of it.
Throughout this quest for information, my view of fracking has always been “better safe than sorry”. For now, at least, I would need more information to be convinced that fracking is right for Ryedale.
But amid the barrage of questions, I also wrestled the opportunity to debunk a number of myths swirling around the anti-fracking campaign. I made clear that there is no Tory “party line” view, despite what some may claim.
I also emphasised what I perceive to be my complete and utter powerlessness. In three years as a district, and then county councillor, I have never faced a single effective vote on fracking. I have no say over the UK’s energy policy, no direct line to Ministers, and, crucially, I do not sit on the planning committee.
As I bobbed up and down to chip in as best I could, I sensed a strange mixture of sheer bemusement and, gradually, genuine appreciation, as the audience heard, perhaps for the first time, a Tory councillor’s take.
There was no cold confrontation, no jeers, no bloodbath – just a genuine exchange of information.
As the evening drew to a close, I felt I had learned a lot from the anti-frackers. I hoped they, too, had learned at least something from “the Tory councillor at the back of the room”.
I was totally unprepared to be dragged into Friday night’s debate. But I left Church House convinced that this unexpected, at times chaotic, largely tolerant and (for me) slightly daunting discussion is exactly what Ryedale needs as it faces the mighty reality of the fracking industry.
Does Friday’s meeting mark a major shift in the fracking debate, from all parties and all perspectives?
I really hope so.
Keane Duncan, 23, is the youngest ever member of North Yorkshire County Council. He represents Norton.