Councillors in West Sussex decided this morning not to accept or reject a call to make the county a frack free zone. But they acknowledged the concerns of residents about fracking.
A debate at this morning’s full meeting of the council voted not to take a position on fracking after more than 3,500 people signed a petition calling for a ban on the process in West Sussex. 52 councillors voted in favour of not taking a position. Six councillors voted against (five of them Labour) and three abstained.
The petitioners had urged the council to ban fracking in West Sussex for the foreseeable future, because they said the technology was “unproven and unsafe”. They said “the need to protect the county’s countryside and communities far outweighs the questionable benefits that may result from the minerals eventually extracted.”
But councillors were advised they should not pre-determine planning applications and were warned that declaring a frack-free zone could expose the council to legal challenge and costs.
In the past six months, West Sussex has approved an application for testing the flow of oil at Cuadrilla’s exploratory well at Balcombe but refused plans by Celtique Energie to drill between Wisborough Green and Kirdford. A judicial review of the Balcombe decision, secured by villagers, will be heard next month. Two days ago, Celtique Energie said it would appeal against the refusal of its application. Neither of these applications involved fracking.
At this morning’s meeting, Phil Donoghue, of Wisborough Green, spoke for the petitioners. He called for a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas operations of at least five years until the council was certain that the risks to people and the environment had been eliminated. He said 20 other councils had passed resolutions opposing fracking and had not been accused of pre-determining the planning processes.
He described the government’s pursuit of fracking as “short-sighted and reckless” and accused it of promoting benefits that had proved to be false.
Mr Donoghue said unconventional extraction created “football pitch sized concrete pads on greenfield site”. They risked disturbance to residents and wildlife habitats by noise and light pollution and required vast quantities of water in an already water-stressed area.
He added that the long-term impacts on wildlife and human health were unknown. “Considering these factors and with no proven record of safe regulation it would be wilfully negligent to permit this industry to destroy this beautiful countryside.”
A statement by the petitioners referred to the recent clarification of government guidance, which said fracking should not be permitted in National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, except in exceptional circumstances. “On this basis most of West Sussex is unsuitable for unconventional drilling”, they said. “It was “disingenuous to approve an exploratory vertical well whose sole purpose is to identify the existence of minerals that can only be extracted by unconventional means.
“Fracking was a “dangerous and uneconomical diversion from the urgent need to invest in new sustainable technology”.
An officers’ report for this morning’s meeting argued:
- A frack-free zone policy would likely to be challenged in court opening the council to legal costs
- All planning applications had to be treated on their merits
- The council could not pre-determine whether applications should be permitted or refused.
- Government policy stated that gas and oil remained important in the UK energy mix and there was a need to establish their presence and viability of production
Cllr Peter Montyn, the cabinet member for planning, said people had to be confident that the council would approach planning applications with an open mind. A pre-determined decision would damage the council’s reputation, he said. He proposed a motion which recognised public concern about the subject of fracking but did not adopt a position on the subject which could be seen to constrain the planning committee.
After the meeting, Mr Donoghue described the decision as disappointing but not unexpected. “We knew that they would use the advice that they had been given by the legal department not to make a decision. But they have an out of date motion [on fracking] from October 2013 and we have given them a way to update that in the light of new evidence.
“We will continue to lobby our councillors. There is growing support in the country and we will not give up.”
Voting record of West Sussex County Council in frack free zone debate