My part of the world is the glorious county of North Yorkshire. It is something of a regional stereotype for Yorkshiremen to be absurdly proud of their patch, but we have good reason. The people, the air, the views, the food: life is not grim up north.
Every five years however, I find to my dismay that the fields grow a most unsightly crop: a plethora of Vote Conservative placards. These are unnecessary weeds, because the constituency I live in (Thirsk and Malton) is a Tory heartland. A blue balloon with a face drawn on it would be able to command a Conservative majority here. Therein lies much of the problem of the last few months.
Recently, placards of a different type have sprouted, campaigning against a worrying proposed new plant. Ryedale has made national news because it has become the epicentre of the debate around fracking. Our whole area has been carved up and sold to the highest bidder. We sit on shale gas here, and the government wants it.
Despite the media’s admirable ability to create a false neutrality by inviting local residents on both sides of the debate to contribute to phone-ins and tv spots, I live here and can tell you that the area speaks with one voice. And that voice says Frack Off! This short blog can’t deal with the debate around fracking, my intention is simply to bring into the sunlight the disgraceful ‘democratic consultation process’ conducted by our representatives.
The Tory-led North Yorkshire County Council acknowledged it had received 4,411 communications from residents. Only 36 were in support of the proposal. I did the maths: that means 99.2% of letters were against fracking. Yet the NYCC voted 7 to 4 in favour of allowing fracking. This is utterly incomprehensible. A government policy is being enacted in an area that is desperately opposed to it, because of the inadequacies of the party political system. The elected representatives of my county are ignoring, in the most obvious way possible, the voices of those they are sworn to represent. This situation illustrates the diseased and desiccated state of local democracy.
The people of Ryedale have been sold out by their Conservative representatives, and this can be done with virtually no repercussions, because the Labour party has never in its history managed to win the hearts and minds of a majority of voters in this region. That being said, the local party has been indefatigable in its attempt to amplify the voice of the residents of Ryedale on this issue.
A diktat has been issued from Tory HQ and enacted by its foot-soldiers on the council. It is difficult to empathise with these individuals. The most favourable reading of their actions suggests that they alone in the area have seen through the rhetoric of the environmental lobbyists and have recognised a truth that has been inexplicably hidden from the eyes of their constituents. If that is the case, then surely they had a moral duty to delay the vote and win the argument in town hall meetings? They did not choose to do this. Other solutions immediately present themselves: would it not have been possible to have opened the issue up to a referendum of those affected? If that were the default position for proposals of this kind the burden of proof would fall on those proposing a change to the norm. Surely a sensible, and a conservative, measure?
Even though Yorkshire (for now) is beautiful, and Yorkshire folk honest and forthright, our political system neutralises and silences us. The anti-fracking movement will continue to fight, and the protests have not stopped. But it would be better for all concerned if Labour could become as potent a force in the countryside as it has been in the cities of our nation.