The sun was shining and the wind blowing steadily across Jacob Rees-Mogg’s manicured garden and the Somerset hills beyond.
“It’s obvious on a day like this, isn’t it?” said Gary Marsh, a stonemason and a neighbour of the business secretary and Conservative MP for North East Somerset. “We should be putting more money into solar and wind energy. Plus tidal power on the coast at places like Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super-Mare. Not fracking, messing with the earth and water.”
Marsh and other residents who live near Rees-Mogg’s constituency home, the Grade II listed red sandstone mansion Gournay Court in the village of West Harptree, were digesting their MP’s claim at the Tory party conference that he would be “delighted” if his garden was fracked. “I don’t think many people around here would like that,” said Marsh.
One of Rees-Mogg’s closest neighbours, who asked not to be named, said when she thought about fracking the image that came to mind was flames spurting from taps in the US. “And then I start getting worried about the earthquakes they had in Lancashire. It doesn’t feel wise to me. I don’t think his views represent what most people here feel.”
Another close neighbour, who also asked to remain anonymous (this is a small village and Rees-Mogg wields power), laughed when asked about fracking. “He’s just doing it to provoke discussion isn’t he? I think he is, anyway.”
David Wood, the Liberal Democrat councillor for the Mendip ward, which includes Rees-Mogg’s garden, does not believe it is a laughing matter.
“By saying he would be delighted by fracking in his back garden, Mr Rees-Mogg is showing how very out of touch he is,” said Wood. “People are crying out for help with the cost-of-living crisis, which fracking will do nothing to address, and for action on insulation and other efficiency measures to cut fuel poverty and wasted energy.
“The government should focus on these issues rather than trashing the environment and focusing on transitioning away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy built in the right places, making the UK independent of global energy markets and setting us up for long-term sustainability.”
There has long been concern in these parts that fracking might affect the rivers and streams that flow into the Chew Valley Lake, which supplies much of the drinking water for Bristol. And there are also fears that tampering with the local geology could interrupt the supply of hot water to Bath, believed to originate in the Mendip Hills.
“We risk doing such a huge amount of harm,” said Charlotte Howell-Jones, a Rees-Mogg constituent who last month organised a demonstration against fracking in north-east Somerset under the Parents for Future banner. Asked if she believed Rees-Mogg was serious, she replied: “It may depend what his nanny thinks. But actually if it went wrong for him he’s got another house to move into. Most people don’t have that luxury.”
Promising more protests around Rees-Mogg’s constituency, she said: “As communities we don’t want fracking, we don’t want new oil and gas. We want clean, renewable sustainable energy.
“Fracking isn’t fair on our community – putting the environmental and health impacts aside, it won’t lower our bills in the midst of the cost of living crisis and certainly won’t lower our emissions. As one of his constituents, and as a worried mum, I will keep pushing back on this.”
But not everyone is against the idea.
One parish councillor, who also asked not to be identified, said: “Putin has stuffed us. There are going to be a lot of people suffering this winter and in winters to come. Unpopular, quick measures may have to be taken.”
Peter Bowden, whose family has run the village store for almost 60 years, said the shop might be forced to close down if, as expected, their energy bills tripled. “It’s becoming impossible to carry on,” said Bowden.
“To be honest, I’d be keen if we had fracking in the village. We need short-term fixes. There are lots of people around here who’d be against – they wouldn’t like the lorries coming in and the risk to the house prices but I think we need to find ways of stopping relying on others for our power. We’ve got to become independent. If that means fracking then so be it.”