Sue Tibballs: Beware a government that stops listening

An anti-fracking campaign group in Lancashire has highlighted what this government thinks about local democracy, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

At the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, we don't take a view on the content of campaigns, as long as they don't break basic principles of human rights, respect and tolerance. But we do celebrate successful campaigns and campaigners.

One of the most impressive campaigners I have come across is Pat Davies, chair of Preston New Road Action Group, and winner of the Environmental Award at our annual Campaigner Awards this year. For the past two years, Davies has led a campaign to stop the energy company Cuadrilla being allowed to explore for shale gas - to frack - in her locality. Along with the Roseacre site nearby, theirs has become a test case: if permission is given to frack here in Lancashire, it will give a green light elsewhere.

Davies exemplifies the qualities of a formidable campaigner. There is the element of surprise: she is a well-dressed woman in her late fifties. You have to look closely to see the yellow band inscribed "Frack Off!" among the pearl bracelets on her wrist. She is a self-taught master of her brief. She is articulate and persuasive. She can mobilise and recruit: more than 30,000 people sent objections to Lancashire County Council. And she is tenacious: she has been leading this campaign full-time for two years, on a wholly voluntary basis.

Most importantly, she has been successful - she and her colleagues have managed to persuade the council, a Conservative authority, to deny planning permission, and all of this on a shoestring budget. Cuadrilla will have spent millions.

Successful until the day, that is, that Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, overruled the local authority. No matter what one thinks of fracking, this intervention reveals some awkward truths about how this government really feels about local democracy and people having a voice.

Even as Theresa May talked with great passion at the Conservative Party conference about listening to people and putting them first, one of her ministers enacted a spectacular example of Westminster making a decision in London against the wishes of a local community. What does local democracy mean when this can happen?

It is tempting to think that Davies and her fellow campaigners are just "nimbys" doing what anyone would do if fracking was proposed locally. But the government's own statistics show that only 19 per cent of the public support fracking and 46 per cent are neither for nor against. This suggests that Davies and her colleagues are ahead of the rest of us. As Davies says, there is no "social licence" for fracking.

At SMK our driving belief is that people should have the ability to shape their world. This government seems to want us to believe it shares this view, but treating Davies and her colleagues with such contempt tells a different story. If we want a vibrant society in which people feel motivated to contribute, they need to feel they have a voice, and we need people like Davies to bring those voices together in well-evidenced campaigns.

This "command-and-control" politics might suit short-term political interests. But it is to the detriment of democracy, civic engagement and society.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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