26th February 2014
Balcombe Parish Council’s Oil Working Group meets today to discuss the village’s future policy on hydrocarbon issues. But how much influence will the council – and local people – have on oil exploration or production in their area? Is there a democratic deficit in decision-making about onshore drilling?
Just over 60 per cent of people who responded to a postal vote of Balcombe villagers opposed the latest planning application by Cuadrilla to flow test its oil exploration well. The poll was carried out by the respected Electoral Reform Society and turnout was 60 per cent, just under the turnout at the last two general elections and higher than 2001. The poll’s credibility has not been questioned. But who will take any notice of its results?
Cuadrilla has already said “We are intend [sic] on proceeding with our flow testing planning application”. The Parish Council has said it will use the poll to help it decide how to respond. But the final decision will be made by the Minerals Planning Authority, in this case West Sussex County Council. It has already told Balcombe that it will consider only those arguments, for or against, that are regarded as ‘material considerations’. Comments that use other arguments will be ignored.
Arguments that will be considered – material considerations
- Visual impact on the local area and more widely
- Impact on neighbours and local amenity
- Impact on the capacity and safety of local roads
- Impact on historic environment
- Impact on ecology and biodiversity
- Impact on water environment and flood risk
- Site restoration and aftercare
- Consistency with national and local policy
Arguments that won’t be considered
- Alternatives to onshore oil or gas resources
- Emissions, control processes or health and safety issues
- Any potential future planning applications
- Landownership issues
- Loss of property values
- Seismic risks – this is dealt with by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
- Well design, construction and integrity – this is dealt with by the Health and Safety Executive
- Mining waste – this is dealt with by the Environment Agency (EA)
- Chemical content of fracking fluid – also dealt with by the EA
- Flaring or venting of gas – dealt with by DECC and EA
- Disposal of fracking fluids – EA
- Abstraction of water – EA
Don’t mention the F-word
Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association has warned people not to use the word ‘fracking’ in any objection to West Sussex County Council because the application itself does not mention this. It also advises against mentioning house prices or government energy policy.
The group’s latest newsletter (No. 18) recommends that comments should concentrate on air, water and noise pollution, geological faults, waste disposal, and the impact on wildlife, traffic and village life.
The grounds for objection or support may be limited, but at least the latest application is being publicly discussed. In 2010, when Cuadrilla made its first application for planning permission to drill an exploratory well at Balcombe, the parish council did not make a response to it. Mid Sussex District Council’s planning committee did not discuss it, but left the response to a planning officer. Local elected district councillors made no comment, nor did the district council’s Environmental Health Department.
West Sussex County Council’s planning committee did not discuss the application but, under delegated powers, left it to the planning officer to approve.
This apparent lack of interest was repeated across the country. An analysis by InvestigatingBalcombeAndCuadrilla.com of planning applications for onshore hydrocarbon drilling from 2001-2013 found that twice as many were dealt with by planning officers under delegated powers than by planning committees.
Total planning applications 90
Decided by planning committee 25 (27%)
Decided by planning officers 51 (57%)
Information not available 14 (16%)
This widespread use of delegated powers is unlikely to happen in future, given the greater awareness of onshore drilling. Indeed, in November last year, West Sussex County Council promised that its planning committee would consider all onshore drilling applications in future.
Despite this, there is no political mandate for hydraulic fracturing. The issue was not included in the 2010 general election manifestos of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or Labour. There’s been no national debate, despite calls from people holding a range of political opinions, including the Conservative leader of West Sussex County Council, Louise Goldsmith.
The government is currently consulting on the sale of the next batch of onshore oil and gas licences, which would cover about 60 per cent of the country. The sale is due to start in the spring and will give companies exclusive rights to exploration and development, providing they get planning permission and permit approvals. The consultation document is 174 pages long but uses only 149 words to consider the option of awarding no new licences. “Such an option”, it says “is incompatible with the main objectives of the [draft Licensing] Plan”. It is considered only to “provide comparison of effects arising from other reasonable alternatives”.
Growth and Infrastructure Act
Local influence could also become more limited because of legislation passed last year. The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 has a provision that allows commercial developments to take a “fast-track regime” and go straight to the Secretary of State, rather than local authorities. During the passage of the bill, the government said applications to frack for shale gas would not be added to the fast-track. But the wording of the statement could be significant. The communities minister, Baroness Haman said:
“At present, fracking applications will not be taken out of the hands of local authorities. Any developer will have to consult the local community and local people and the local authority will have the right of determination.
“A request would have to be made to the secretary of state to use the infrastructure regime and he would agree to such a request only where the proposal raised issues of national significance.
“It may be that national significance and fracking will be one and the same but that gives an indication that at present we would expect this to be dealt with locally and local people would have a big say in what was to happen.”