Government in regular contact with Lancashire County Council over Cuadrilla fracking applications

The government had regular contact over a period of five months with Lancashire County Council about Cuadrilla’s applications to frack in the Fylde, according to a parliamentary answer published this week.

The Energy Minister, Matt Hancock, met the council’s deputy leader in November, while civil servants from two government departments had email and phone conversations with council officers between September 2014 and January 2015.

In September and October 2014 officials from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) asked for details about the number of responses to the applications to drill and frack at Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road, Little Plumpton. They also asked about the expected decision date.

In November 2014, staff from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) offered information on their Department’s role in regulating the shale gas industry. They responded once in November and twice in January to issues raised during the public consultation on the applications. There were also two phone conversations between officials about pressure on local authorities dealing with this type of planning application.

The contacts cover the period of public consultations on the applications, the recommendation by officers to refuse planning permissions and the meeting of Lancashire’s Development Control Committee, which deferred decisions.

The contacts also correspond with the period covered by George Osborne’s leaked action plan, in which he “expected to see rapid progress” on a series of recommendations on shale gas. He set an objective for DCLG to develop a “clear timetable” to “implement the development of 3-4 exemplar drilling sites to prove the concept of safe shale gas exploration, including locations”. Three of the five objectives of the timetable dealt with Cuadrilla’s applications in Lancashire and four action points involve contacts with Lancashire County Council.

The information on government contacts with Lancashire County Council emerged in the reply to a written parliamentary question by the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Greaves. He asked whether:

Her Majesty’s Government communicated with Lancashire County Council over the planning applications by Cuadrilla for fracking at Roseacre Wood and Little Plumpton; and if so when and by what means they did so, and what was the purport of any communication?

The reply from the Energy Minister, Baroness Verma, released on Wednesday 11th February, made it clear that officials had followed protocol:

Communications between Her Majesty’s Government and Lancashire County Council have been carried out in accordance with the “Guidance on Planning Propriety Issues*” published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in February 2012. The merits of the planning applications at Roseacre Wood and Little Plumpton have not been discussed.

Baroness Verma then listed the communications. Full transcript

September and October 2014
Officials from DCLG communicated by email and phone to obtain information on the total number of representations received on the planning applications and the intended timescale for a decision.

3rd November 2014
DECC officials wrote to Lancashire County Council to provide information on the department’s regulatory role that “might be helpful in considering the applications”.

12th November 2014
The Energy Minister, Matt Hancock, met with the deputy leader of Lancashire County Council as part of a regional visit. “This meeting did not discuss the merits of the planning applications”, Baroness Verma said.

17th November 2014
Lancashire County Council asked for comments from DECC about issues raised in the public consultations on the planning applications. DECC’s responses addressed “only matters which fell under DECC’s regulatory responsibilities”, Baroness Verma said. The details of the correspondence are not disclosed.

December 2014
Telephone conversation between officials to try to identify areas where local authority resources came under most pressure when processing these type of application.

January 2014
Another telephone conversation between officials about pressure on local authorities.

The Director of Public Health at Lancashire County Council wrote to DECC asking for comments on the Health Impact Assessment carried out on Cuadrilla’s applications.

14th January 2014
Meeting planned between DECC and LCC officials but postponed until after the planning decisions.

19th January 2015
More correspondence from DECC officials about issues raised in the public consultations.

20th January 2015
Two communications. One was by telephone between the Chief Executive of Lancashire County Council and the Permanent Secretary at DCLG. It was to inform the department of the officer recommendations to refuse the applications, to be published at 9.00am the following day. The other was an e-mail from Lancashire County Council about when the reports would be published and where they would be made available on their website.

20th January 2015
DECC Officials wrote to the Director of Public Health at Lancashire County Council saying they “could not respond [on the health impact assessment] ahead of the planning decisions”.

26th January 2015
More correspondence from DECC officials about issues raised in the public consultations.

27th January
DECC officials informed Lancashire County Council they would not be attending the development control meetings, on 28th and 29th January, at which the decisions would be made on the planning applications.

Chancellor’s shale timetable 

In George Osborne’s timetable for shale there are several actions specifically about Lancashire and Cuadrilla’s application. These include:

  • DECC to “consider whether to provide additional technical support to Lancashire to help determine current planning applications”, October 2014.
  • DECC to “develop segmented and tailored plan for public engagement in Lancashire and other potential first move sites”, October-December 2014.
  • DECC and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), to “demonstrate tangible benefits locally”, October and December 2014.
  • BIS and DCLG to “make better use of local growth interactions with LEP [Lancashire Enterprise Partnership] and Enterprise zone to promote importance of shale to local growth” [The leader of Lancashire County Council is a member of the LEP].

The timetable also states that if Cuadrilla were refused permission, the company would “respond to concerns and appeal asap”.  When officers recommended refusal of the applications on 21st January, Cuadrilla provided more information to Lancashire County Council and asked for a deferral of the decision, which was granted.

The timetable also required DCLG to “prepare PINS [Planning Inspectorate] to respond promptly to appeal”. It should also prepare for the Secretary of State at DCLG to decide the appeal “if appropriate”.

* Guidance on Planning Propriety Issues, published by DCLG in 2012, deals with issues that arise when the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government makes planning decisions, particularly appeals. It applies specifically to DCLG Ministers and is extended to ministers in other departments only when decisions are made jointly. The guidance advises planning ministers to take “greater care” when planning applications are still with local authorities. The guidance does not cover the role of government officials.

George Osborne letter and action plan

Link to full question and answer

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