Drilling company tries to block public inquiry into Dudleston plans

Dart Energy is seeking to avoid the public defence of its proposals for coal bed methane drilling in Shropshire.

The company is challenging a decision to hold a public inquiry into its planning application for an exploratory borehole at Dudleston Heath, near Ellesmere.

Dart appealed in January against Shropshire Council’s failure to decide the application within the time limit. Councillors had voted that they were minded to reject the proposals, against the advice of planning officers.

The Planning Inspectorate decided earlier this month that the appeal should be heard as a bespoke inquiry in public in front of an inspector. This would allow the company to be cross-examined and would take into account the views of local people.

But Dart Energy wanted the appeal to be decided by the exchange of written representations and has urged the Planning Inspectorate to reconsider holding a public inquiry.

In letter, published on the appeal page of Shropshire Council’s website, Dart’s planning consultant, Darren Hendley, said: “The Appellant is concerned and surprised that the Planning Inspectorate has determined the most appropriate is deal with the appeal would be an Inquiry, rather than Written Representations.”

Local campaigners against the plans had argued that an inquiry was appropriate because the issues were complex and there was considerable local interest. More than 500 people, including most residents living near the proposed site, had objected to the plans.

In his letter, Mr Hendley argued that the issues were simple and the application was basically the same as one that had been approved by the council in 2010 but expired before any work began. He said it was unlikely that an Inspector would “need to test the evidence by questioning”.

There was also no need, he said, for evidence from expert witnesses or for evidence to be tested under cross-examination by lawyers.

He added that the Planning Inspectorate’s decision for a public inquiry appeared to be based on public comments on the application and the number of objections to an appeal by written representation.

But, he said, public representations should not figure in deciding which appeal procedure is appropriate. He said many of the concerns raised in public objections to the application were about fracking, government policy or coal bed methane production. These were “wholly irrelevant to the appeal”, he said.

Mr Hendley added that an appeal by Dart against refusal of permission for coal bed methane exploration near Wrexham had been decided in the company’s favour under written representations. He urged the planning inspectorate to reconsider its decision.

Chris Hesketh, of the campaign group, Frack Free Dudleston, told the Shropshire Star: “It would be an injustice and unfair on the public to have only written representations.

“Under the public inquiry, we are able to have a representation who will have an equal amount of time to speak as the energy company and the council. With the written representation we only get to send our objections in once, with no right of reply after that.”

Mr Hesketh said local people had been clear that fracking would not be used at the proposed site. “To accuse us of not knowing what we are talking about is frustrating”, he said.

He said he did not accept Dart’s arguments against a public inquiry and he would “continue to press that the inspectorate makes the right decision.”

An inquiry is expected to take at least three days. No date has yet been set.

Planning inspectorate listens to local people on Dudleston appeal

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