A council fact-finding inquiry on fracking has become mired in recriminations.
Local community groups have accused Cheshire West and Chester Council of a “flawed and biased process” in the way it ran the inquiry. They walked out of the most recent meeting, accusing the council of being heavily in favour of the shale gas industry and letting down local communities. A Labour member of the inquiry also walked out and another has publicly stated his opposition to fracking.
The Conservative-run council has hit back, accusing the community groups of discourtesy and of trying to derail the inquiry.
The examination of unconventional oil and gas extraction was established last May to explore both sides of the argument. It has met five times and, according to the Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWACC), listened to more than 10 hours of evidence.
But representatives of local communities said they had become increasingly dismayed by what they said was “a progressively biased and deeply flawed procedure”.
Fiona Young described the inquiry as a sham. She said: “It has been painful to witness how heavily weighted the process has been in favour of the industry. How can you even pretend to be looking at both sides when the vast majority of invited speakers have been pro-fracking?”
She said: “Our communities entered into this process, naively believing that the council would abide by its own terms of reference and that it would be, as billed, a fair, open and honest examination of the facts about fracking. It has been nothing of the sort.”
Ms Young said the inquiry had “constantly questioned” the credentials and qualifications of community groups. “They are completely irrelevant”, she said. “What matters is the legitimacy of the evidence we have submitted”. She said their evidence would stand up to legal scrutiny but had been dismissed on what she called “flawed legal grounds”. “The problem is not a legal one”, she said, “It is political”.
She said the final straw came when the most recent full meeting of the council refused to hold a debate on fracking. She said: “We feel totally let down by our own council, which has failed to engage with the community.”
“It is therefore with regret that we have made a collective decision to remove ourselves from these proceedings. If openness, transparency and democracy return, then so shall we”.
James Cameron, an architect who worked for the former Chester City Council, said the original programme for the first four public meetings had 14 speakers for the industry and two against. “The community has negotiated for additional presentations but the balance is still heavily in favour of the industry”, he said.
He described the inquiry as a set-up, “pretending to be investigating the issues only for public appearances whilst it continues to court the industry, ignoring and withholding evidence and treating us like dummies.”
“The public can have no confidence in this council or its charade of an inquiry and I shall not be its patsy.”
Stephen Allman, from Mickle Trafford, said the inquiry’s terms of reference included a commitment to openness and transparency. “These and other undertakings have simply been ignored by our council”, he said.
The community representatives said the council had also failed to give the public access to all the submitted evidence, as had been agreed. They accused some councillors of not paying attention during presentations given by non-industry witnesses.
Labour members oppose fracking
Labour councillor Reggie Jones, a member of the inquiry, also left the meeting. He said: “I hadn’t decided to do it beforehand. Once they got up I thought I agree with them and thought it was silly to stay there.”
“Residents were led to believe the process would be evidence-led, when all we have had is some good presentations. There has been no real challenge in the process. It has been a nonsense and has been designed to move the issue to the other side of the election.”
Cllr Jones also declared that he was against fracking and unconventional gas extraction because he said there was evidence of “health risks”.
Another Labour member of the group, Cllr Mark Henesy, proposed a motion on fracking at February’s full council meeting. The motion urged the authority to state its opposition to any application for shale gas or coal gas methane testing or extraction in the borough “until such time as the council is satisfied as to the safety of the process and that the risk of adverse environmental impacts have been fully addressed”.
The council chose not to debate the motion and rejected calls for a named vote. Cllr Henesy said: “People who live in the communities we represent are extremely worried about fracking. They feel that decisions are being taken without their knowledge or their consent. We brought this motion to Council, precisely to address these concerns. By refusing to even debate this issue, the Tories have shown real contempt for local people’s worries.”
In a statement headed “Council hits back at attempts to derail fracking examination”, CWACC defended the inquiry. Its chair, Cllr Mark Williams, said: “We have heard evidence from a whole range of experts representing the industry, regulatory and environmental bodies, community groups and protestors…. from IGas to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and INEOS to residents protest groups.”
Cllr Williams said: “At the request of the organisations opposed to shale gas extraction, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Advisor to the Australian National Toxins Network, was able to take an interactive part in the debate via Skype. By integrating skype with the webcast – probably a local government ‘first’ – her views on the effects of fracking in her native Australia were also broadcast to members of the public viewing the meeting”.
Cllr Stuart Parker, Executive Member for Economy (not a member of the inquiry), said: “We recognise that everyone has strong views on this subject and the right to express those views. We have moved heaven and earth to facilitate this process and expected at the very least both sides would listen to what the other had to say.
“The orchestrated walk out was extremely discourteous to other key speakers – including the MP for Ellesmere Port, who spoke in favour of shale gas extraction with the right safeguards – and to those who have spent endless hours organising these events.”
He added: “Demonstrators were angry that there had been no debate at council but how could we hold a debate when the examination of the evidence before us was still incomplete?”
The inquiry has two further scheduled meetings. CWACC confirmed that these meetings would go ahead after the May council elections.