The British government wants to be “a leader of the shale gas revolution” and is offering massive tax breaks to the industry, despite its devastating ecological impacts, especially to groundwater. While nationwide opposition to fracking is growing in Britain, the conflict currently focuses around the small town of Balcombe, 30 miles south of London, where exploratory digging is being blocked by the Balcombe protection camp.
Within the British mainstream media, there have been articles explaining the links between big oil, the government and the dangers of fracking. For instance, it is known that the government’s lead business adviser, Lord Browne, is chairman of Cuadrilla, the fracking company operating in Balcombe.
However, the lords' and aristocratic landowners’ role has been mainly neglected in the national debate — and for a comprehensive discussion about who stands to gain from fracking in England, it's crucial to highlight that the potential ‘winners’ include the Lords of the Manor and Queen Elizabeth. She is, after all, the country’s biggest landowner.
Successes for the Growing Opposition to Fracking
In late July, Cuadrilla attempted to initiate exploration work at Balcombe, with the aim of rolling out fracking operations across the area. But the company was met by local residents who halted work, blocking the gate. As a result, all vehicles and machinery required a massive police operation to get through. The opposition continued and Balcombe protection camp was soon initiated, uniting locals and concerned citizens.
The protests appear to be already having an impact, as Cuadrilla announced on Friday, August 16, that it would scale back its exploratory work. The decision was likely due in part to Reclaim the Power, a pro-environment event that moved to Balcombe to show solidarity against fracking. In reality, however, the company's promise may represent a pause rather than a termination of its plans.
Balcombe is part of England's traditional Conservative heartland, yet a door to door survey reported by the BBC showed 85% of residents here oppose plans to frack. The government’s push for the industry has caused disquiet within the Conservative Party; the Financial Times reported that a senior Conservative MP has warned the Prime Minister that his support for fracking is not just angering Balcombe, but large constituencies who traditionally vote Conservative.
Yet one element of traditional support for the Conservatives – small in number although powerful in terms of property ownership – are currently key players in supporting the government's plans to frack: the landed gentry.
Hereditary Privilege Enables a British Aristocrat to Push Fracking in Balcombe
Simon Greenwood owns the Balcombe estate. He sold Cuadrilla the rights to frack these lands and will gain from any gas that is extracted. Greenwood has the opportunity to lease 3,500 acres of Sussex which he inherited from his parents, who were gifted it as a dowry on their wedding day. The whole estate has been in Greenwood’s family's possession tracing back to his great grandfather, the first Lord Cowdray, who was awarded the land title due to his success as an oil magnate and his engineering firm that profited making war munitions during the First World War.
The Cowdray Estate website shows how Lord Cowdray bought the estate from other members of the nobility. Its former owners include the Earls of Egmont and before them the Viscount Montagues. If you trace the history back over nine centuries you find that Henry I, in 1103, gave this land to Savoric fitz Cana from Normandy.
The legitimacy of ownership of such large pieces of Britain is questionable by any Lord, Viscount or Earl. In this case its basis is a gift from an 11th century king to a member of the Norman nobility. The historic inequality is now connecting to the 21st century, and being amplified, as the power passed down through nobility has granted Greenwood the chance to profit from fracking despite its impact and broad opposition.
The investigative journal Private Eye has published an explanation of Greenwood’s hereditary claim going back as far as the early 20th century. It explains that Greenwood was himself the local government official who allowed the planning application for fracking on his land to go ahead. This was underhand and potentially illegal in two senses: Greenwood did not open the matter up for discussion within the council, and failed to state his conflict of interest.
Across Britain, “Lords of the Manor” and the Royal Family Could Gain from Fracking
This vested interest in fracking goes to the very top of the “old power” structure. Britain’s sovereign — and the world’s largest — landowner, Queen Elizabeth, is set for massive financial gain from fracking. She is among many other landowners whose claim to the land dates back to the age of Lords and Serfdom.
Last year, Reuters reported that Queen Elizabeth owns more than 50,000 acres of land with mineral rights, which fracking companies will have to pay if they want to frack. These Lord of the Manor rights mean that the Queen, like all historic aristocratic landowners, have the mineral rights to the lands she holds. (The northwest county of Lancaster was the location of Cuadrilla’s first explorations for fracking, which were halted when they resulted in earthquakes.) Lord of the Manor rights also mean that landowners can claim revenue on lands they used to hold, too.
Old money – belonging to the royal family and aristocracy of Britain – is frequently ignored by today's social justice activism campaigns. Instead, campaigns and direct actions focus on new money, ie. corporations and the government, because this new money is seen as the most destructive and influential.
But if the aristocracy and royal family continue to support — and if they aim to benefit from — fracking, it may be worth focusing more attention on the concentration of land ownership to understand how old money holds the power to frack us all.
On a global level, as part of the campaign against fracking, tar sands and other destructive industrial expansions, environmentalists and social justice campaigners now have an opportunity to broaden the debate about property ownership. It seems a crucial point: to scrutinize the historic reasons why the 1% claim to own so much of the world, and with it, their claim to the right to profit from its destruction.