Conservatives on Shropshire Council have voted against national party policy and opposed for the second time a planning application for coal bed methane exploration.
The Conservative-led planning committee confirmed this afternoon an earlier vote against Dart Energy’s proposal for an exploratory well at Dudleston near Ellesmere. Eight councillors voted that they were minded to refuse the application and one abstained. The actual decision will be made by a planning inspector because Dart has already lodged an appeal.
Chris Hesketh, who spoke for the people of Dudleston against the application, praised the committee’s decision.
“This is exactly what we had been hoping for. The councillors were fantastic. They are the heroes. Virtually everyone on the committee is a Conservative .They were opposing their party’s desires, which are being forced on us. These councillors were behaving like democratically-elected representatives and I applaud them for it and for listening to the people.”
More than 500 people, including most of the population around the proposed site, have objected to the application.
The proposal was last discussed by the committee in October 2014, when members rejected the advice of planners and voted against. On the advice of legal officers the councillors then voted instead that they were minded to refuse and under council rules the final decision was deferred.
In December, the council asked Dart for more information on issues raised at the meeting. In January, Dart refused the request, saying this was not “appropriate or proportionate”. A few days later, the company lodged an appeal with the planning inspectorate because the council had missed the target date for a decision.
This afternoon, planning officer, Kelvin Hall, said it would be difficult to defend the grounds for refusal raised at the previous meeting of light pollution, ecological and landscape impact and poor economic return. He said the council could defend an appeal on the grounds of noise disturbance, the threat to private water supplies and potential pollution from a nearby slurry lagoon.
The local councillor, Steve Davenport (Con) said the application in the open countryside would “not have got through the door” if it had been for industrial units. He urged refusal for the community and the wider countryside. Under council rules, he was not allowed to vote or take part in the discussion.
Cllr Vince Hunt (Con) said the committee was still minded to refuse because the application contravened four core strategic policies. And Cllr Pauline Dee, the only independent on the committee, raised concerns about geological faults, earthquakes and water pollution.
Mr Hesketh told councillors: “This application is not in the interests of the community or of the county of Shropshire”. He said the Department of Energy and Climate Change had already concluded that coal bed methane extraction would not work in the geology of the area but Dart had chosen to pursue its proposals.
To applause from the public gallery, he said: “We must win this appeal for the good of Shropshire and its people”. He said made four arguments, which he said, could win the appeal:
Slurrry lagoon He said this was described in the application as a fishing lake with great crested newts. But it was a high-risk structure and the Environment Agency had said it would prosecute if pollution resulted from it. There had been no proper assessment of the risk from the lagoon, Mr Hesketh said, and the assumption in the application was that “all would be ok”.
Sound The applicant was wrong to say that the noise limit was 45 decibels – in fact it should be 40 decibels. The applicant had said noise problems could be solved by site design but the attenuation measures were in opposite direction to the properties that would suffer most, Mr Hesketh said.
Drinking water Two properties had rights to take water for drinking from the ground and their private supplies were at risk
Roadside hedgerow The application would involve the removal of 10m of hedgerow. This was described in the application as species-poor when it was actually species-rich, Mr Hesketh said. “Removal of 10 metres of ancient hedgerow is not a good enough reason to refuse but simply redesigning the site would result in no loss of any hedgerow”, he added.
No one from Dart or its planning agents spoke at the meeting. The company has asked for the appeal to be decided in writing, which means local people will not have an opportunity to take part.
Chris Hesketh said he would be asking the planning inspectorate to consider changing the arrangements to a hearing or public inquiry. Under guidelines for appeals, a matter of significant public interest should be dealt with at an inquiry.
Mr Hesketh said: “This is a matter of significant public interest. It has been reported nationally. There is enough interest in it locally. 500 people – most of the population around the proposed site – objected. There are far more people here today than I had expected.”