A protester shows his feelings about fracking near Ardingly Reservoir, West Sussex. Photograph: Chloe Parker /Alamy
Fracking has already caused small earthquakes in the north-west, but homeowners in the vicinity of shale gas extraction could face an even worse aftershock: falling house prices.
John Johnson, manager of estate agent Farrell Heyworth in the Lancashire town of Poulton-le-Fylde, near one of the main drilling sites, says: "There are a lot of properties coming on to the market, and some of the owners are saying they want to get out before prices start dropping."
Fracking involves drilling a well hundreds of metres into the ground and pumping it full of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the rock and release methane gas. The process was halted in the UK in June 2011 after two earthquakes in two months near Blackpool followed drilling at sites in Lancashire by Cuadrilla Resources. An independent scientific report recently recommended that fracking could resume, subject to stricter controls, but fracking companies are still awaiting the results of a government review.
In the meantime Cuadrilla says it is considering where next to site its drill rig. The company, one of four with a permit to search for shale gas in Britain, has 10 sites so far, most of which are in Lancashire, but the company also has sites in Cowden in Kent, Lingfield in Surrey and has planning permission for exploratory drilling in Balcombe in West Sussex. It says it has no plans to carry out work on the southern sites at this time. Richard Sexton, a director of esurv, the UK's biggest provider of residential valuation services, said levels of public awareness about fracking are still low. He added that as awareness increased, fracking would affect house prices, "blighting properties in the areas perceived to be affected".
He believes the effect would be similar to that of the high speed rail line planned from London to Birmingham, HS2 – painful but relatively short term: "Prices have gone down 10% to 20% within a mile of the proposed route, and prices will remain depressed until the line is up and running. Reality is never quite as bad as we think it is."