If you travel down the west coast of England, on the rail line running from Manchester to North Wales, you’ll eventually pass through a long tunnel just beyond Runcorn East. I suppose in European and World terms, it’s a very short tunnel. Yet it’s uniquely a long tunnel in an otherwise flat part of the country and has the novelty of making your ears go pop. Travel through the tunnel lasts a minute or so and you emerge just before Frodsham where a view to the Mersey Estuary opens up on the right and stretches for miles across the sand banks that fill the wide mouth of the river to the point where the brown fresh waters meet the grey brine of the Irish Sea.
In the distant past, I worked a year at the cable company, BICC, in Helsby, one stop beyond Frodsham. When I was travelling there each day, Helsby station had just won some national awards for being the best kept station in the country and, to my eyes, it deserved the accolades. It was beautifully maintained with richly coloured abundant flower beds and old style railway buildings that looked like they’d been plucked from some episode of Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. Since then, it’s become unstaffed and much of it is boarded up; no doubt a little money saved but for an incalculable loss of value…
Yet Helsby village itself still sits perched on the side of one of the few proper highpoints in the area, rising 370 feet over the surrounding land. Looking up the sheer rock face is dizzying, especially when it’s being climbed as it often is by people providing points of Lyrcra colour against the reddish grey rock. Walk to the top and the view is magnificent, with the misted mountains of Wales visible through the clouds to the west and Liverpool in the distant northwest where the Liver Building stands distinct and often glitters in the sun against the banks of the brown river. Directly to the north, you look across the runways of John Lennon Airport and the movements of planes make if feel like you’re watching a diorama of a functioning airport, perfect down to the infinitesimal scale. On a clear day, it’s an uplifting view and quite unique in that it gives a view of a huge swathe of the north, filled with remarkable things to see. Yet perhaps the most telling view is to be seen if you turn your eyes to the northeast and look at the eyesore of the petro-chemical industry that’s built up around Runcorn and Widnes.
The scale of the chemical works is something to behold and locals I knew would often talk about the problems they’d experienced living near such concentrated industry. I don’t know how true this is but I was told that one leak (chlorine, I think it was) meant the police ordered the residents to stay indoors. It was wise they did. Apparently, the leak even changed the colour of their windows and walls.
I always found it hard to believe that people could live happily with dangerous chemicals just a few gusts away, but then, closer to home, there was Warrington where climbing off the train at Bank Quay station, you would often be subjected to the smell of the soap works, the taste of washing powder on your tongue, and, at its worst, a mild burning sensation in your eyes and nostrils. I grew up in the shadow of a gasholder, when the full tank would block our TV reception, and I played for hours on the local ‘mountains’ which were actually industrial waste from the local vitriol industry which had dump its spoil there. I’m also far more used to the problems of subsidence, being born, raised, and living in one of the most heavily mined areas of the country. There are old local tales of houses being swallowed up in sink holes and my old school was eventually demolished because of subsidence but I remember its later years when the second floor listed so heavily to one side that it made it difficult to walk down parts of the corridor. Of course, as a child, you find that sort of thing funny, walking on something that resembled the walkway into a funhouse. As an adult you realise that the whole place was literally falling down around our ears.
Although tighter environmental laws mean that things have improved dramatically in recent years, having lived or worked in proximity to the chemical industry and mining subsidence, I’m wary of the promises made by the fracking industry and the assurances they give people about its safety. I worry when I hear another high profile head in the fracking debate suggest that shale fracking should be done in the north to save the industry from the kind of protests they’ve seen in the south. Up here, apparently, things are desolate and there isn’t as much to go wrong should deep fracking cause problems at the surface.
It’s odd that southern politicians and business men should talk like this, almost as though repetition of disputed facts make them more likely to be true. Perhaps they mean that protests will be ignored by the southern based media, which is certainly likely and, indeed, probable. The Times recently sacked their northern correspondent as part of cuts. That is clearly what we mean to those in London.
Perhaps they also mean that influential people won’t stand in their way if drilling is conducted beneath the homes of people with less political sway. That is also true. There aren’t that many rich influential land owners with connections to politicians living in these parts. That’s why the landscape around here is littered with examples of what happens when industry is left to tend to its own affairs.
Yet the perception that the north is desolate is one I don’t recognise at all. My experience of travelling between the north and south is that, except for the densely built area around London, there’s far more empty space in the south than there is anywhere in the North West. High up beyond Blackburn and heading towards the Lake District, things might get more desolate but there are huge swathes of southern England where you can also look from the horizon to horizon without seeing more than a few buildings. In the North West, there aren’t that many times you can look to the horizon and see only green. Industrial estates, new housing developments, towns, and villages seem to spread from Blackpool down to Southport, across to Preston, and down to the densely built belt running across the country from Liverpool in the West, through to Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield.
Energy independence is to be welcomed but while I’m not sure we need yet another dirty form of energy, I am positive that if this industry isn’t suitable for the fields of Sussex and the South Downs, then it shouldn’t be suitable for Merseyside, Cheshire, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, where more than just a few people happen to live. The only case the government could make is that we really are the second class citizens they seem to believe we are.
Not that I suppose our protests would amount to anything. Not give the kind of casual ignorance demonstrated by those in power. Government thinking is rank with easy stereotypes, from their assumptions about immigration, the poor, the unemployed, all the way to their belief that bankers are victimised and underpaid. Or at least that’s how it appears when Lord Howell, George Osborne’s father in law, explained that he didn’t mean to insult the North East by suggesting it was desolate when, in fact, he actually meant to say the North West.
Given he represents a North West constituency, George Osborne’s recent encouragement to the fracking industry might have been a little surprising had he not already demonstrated a wilful disregard for the north. I just hope his constituents remember this the next time they have chance to stick a cross beside to his name as Member of Parliament for Tatton. Wilmslow, within his constituency, is one of the richer areas of the region, home to Alex Ferguson and many top Premiership footballers from City and United. It’s strange how all those golf courses were never thought the obvious place to start the search for shale gas…