The planning authority which granted permission to Cuadrilla to test its well at Balcombe followed government guidance, a court heard this afternoon.
At a judicial review of the way the decision was reached, West Sussex County Council rejected arguments by Balcombe villagers that council officers had misdirected the planning committee.
This morning the Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association, which secured the review, said officers should not have told the committee to assume that the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive would do their jobs satisfactorily. FFBRA also said it was wrong to tell the committee that it could not take into account key issues, including:
- Concerns about air and water pollution
- The number of objections to the application
- Cuadrilla’s breaches of earlier planning conditions
- Costs to the council arising from crime and disorder if the application were approved.
FFBRA had objected to the planning application and had urged the committee at its meeting in April this year to defer a decision because more information was needed. But the committee voted to approve the application. FFBRA’s barrister, David Wolfe QC, told the High Court in London: “Had the committee not been misdirected then it might have weighed issues in its mind differently and it might have done things differently”. More on this morning’s arguments
James Maurici QC, for West Sussex County Council, said the council had followed planning guidance. “Where people raised points about the regulatory regime, they [council officers] put them up to the regulatory organisations and got their advice. This is what the guidance says a planning authority should do and that is what they did.”
He pointed to case law which argued that it was not the job of planning authorities to duplicate the responsibilities of other bodies. He also said planning authorities should not substitute their own judgement for that of other organisations.
Mr Maurici said the planning officer dealing with the case, Jane Moseley, had correctly identified two key issues of air and water quality. He said the Environment Agency had told the council it was satisfied with measures proposed to deal with potential pollution. Nothing would be gained by delaying the decision and no additional information was needed.
Public Health England had said it had no significant concerns about the health of the local population providing the applicant took all appropriate measures to prevent pollution”, Mr Maurici said. He added that PHE had suggested that the council “may wish to consider” wider monitoring of emissions to air from a flare on the site. But this was a suggestion, not a requirement, Mr Maurici added.
On previous breaches of planning permission, Mr Maurici said the committee had been made aware of this. He pointed to the amendments of conditions by councillors that restricted lorry movements during school drop-off and pick-up times and required continuous noise monitoring and the establishment of a community liaison group.
“There are conditions that have worked”, he said. “They have been tightened. There is no reason to believe they will not be complied with and if not complied then statutory reporting mechanisms will apply.”
On the number of objections, Mr Maurici said this was recorded very clearly in the planning officer’s report to the committee. The report summarised what the objections were and considered those that were relevant. “Planning is not a referendum”, he said. “What matters is where those objections have merit.”
On the costs of crime and disorder arising from the application, he said the police had been consulted and had not objected. The planning report said there were no crime and disorder implications. Mr Maurici said this was because the council had taken out an injunction preventing people opposed to the development from protesting on the road outside the site or on the grass verges. Mr Maurici said the committee had added an additional condition requiring extra security at the site.
“It could not be right to refuse planning permission because you were concerned about lawful or unlawful protest that would cost money,” he said. “That cannot be a proper approach. The council took the view that there was not going to be any serious issue of public order and costs would be minimal. It would not be relevant to consider the costs point.”
About 10 people from Balcombe watched proceedings this afternoon. Also in the public gallery were the chair of West Sussex Planning Committee, Cllr Heidi Brunsden, and the two officers who gave advice to councillors: Ms Moseley and the legal officer, Becky Moutrey.
The judicial review continues in the morning when the two sides are due to sum up their cases. A result is not expected tomorrow but the judge, Mr Justice Gilbart, said “judgement will be delivered pretty swiftly”.