To shouts of “shame” and “fix”, members of East Yorkshire’s planning committee voted unanimously this morning to approve Rathlin Energy’s application for up to two more exploratory gas wells at West Newton north of Hull. The decision came despite an appeal by the local councillor to refuse the plans and a comment from one committee member that she would not like it in her back yard.
Opponents of the proposal said they were disappointed but not surprised by the vote. One of them described the meeting as an astonishing display of ignorance and accused the chairman of Rathlin Energy of cowardice for not attending.
Campaigners said they would examine a recording of the meeting before deciding whether to seek a judicial review of how the decision was reached.
Council planners had recommended approval of the plans. In a report to the committee, they said any impacts on the environment or local people could be dealt with by conditions. The report also said the development was supported by local and national planning policy. The committee voted to make 15 conditions on the application, including requiring a liaison committee of local residents.
Unlike planning meetings on oil and gas developments in West Sussex and Lancashire, the East Riding of Yorkshire committee allowed presentations from only one speaker in support and one against the plan. The local ward councillor was also allowed to speak.
Simone Butterworth, a neighbour of the proposed well, spoke against the plans. She urged councillors to defer the application until they had enough information to make a decision.
Referring to the 14 breaches of environmental permit conditions by Rathlin Energy at its existing well at West Newton, Ms Butterworth asked: “Does this company have the capacity and commitment to fulfil the conditions?” She said “Members can consider how conditions have been adhered to so far”.
Ms Butterworth also asked councillors if they could make a judgement on whether estimated economic benefits would outweigh environmental costs. And she questioned whether the application, for 24-months, was temporary as described by planning officers, when Rathlin planned to go into gas production if the exploration was successful.
Liz Walker, for Rathlin Energy, said the company was committed to environmentally-safe operations. She said Rathlin had carried out community and stakeholder engagement on the proposed wellsite. “Every effort has been made to respond to the issues raised during the process”, she said.
Cllr John Holt, the county councillor for the ward including West Newton, said the proposal would industrialise the countryside and make the lives of residents more difficult. He said residents were concerned that the wellsite would result in noise, smell, large numbers of lorries and an excessive police presence.
Only two members of the committee raised doubts about the application. Cllr Margaret Chapman told the meeting: “I would not like this in my back yard. A lot of us would not.”
She said: “I have tried and tried and tried to find something that, as a planning authority, we can hang our objections on. I am sorry I cannot find anything. There may be other things that others can find that can stop it.”
She said if the committee voted against the application, Rathlin Energy would appeal and win and the council would lose control.
Cllr Nigel Wilkinson was concerned about the risk of drilling through the aquifer, on which the area depended for its drinking water. He said the assessment that the operation was “low risk” was “not good enough”.
“I am concerned”, he said, “but I am not sure I can do anything about it”.
Andy Wainwright, the council’s Strategic Development Services Manager, said environmental risks were dealt with by the Environment Agency and planning rules required councils to assume that the EA would do its job correctly.
Cllr David Rudd, who told the committee he had been phoned by Rathlin the night before the meeting, proposed members vote in favour of the application. To shouts of shame, he said the application was for only 10 weeks. (Drilling is estimated to last up to 10 weeks for each well. The application is for 24 months).
He added: “If they did make any mistakes I am sure they have learned from them. I hope it goes through”. In response, some members of the public shouted “How much is Rathlin paying you?”
Cllr Bryan Pearson pointed out that the application would not drill into the Bowland shale and was not about fracking. “The Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency do not wish to object and neither to I”, he said.
To shouts of “untrue”, Cllr Charlie Bayram said much of the drinking water for the area came from the River Derwent. The application, he said, “will not have an effect on our water”.
After the meeting, Beverley campaigner Jon Mager, said: “I am not surprised but I am absolutely astonished by the display of ignorance. To say it will only take 10 weeks shows they have not read the planners’ report.”
He praised Cllr Holt, a Conservative on the Tory-led council, for supporting the concerns of local residents. “In the East Riding that takes guts. That was very brave of him and he deserves full praise.”
But he criticised David Montagu Smith, the chairman of Rathlin Energy for not attending the committee. “We have David Montagu Smith on the run. He does not like it”.
Mr Mager said residents in the West Newton area would review a recording of the meeting and decide if there were grounds to seek a judicial review.
Harry Clark, of New Ellerby, also welcomed the support from Cllr Hoat. ”There were some of the council who could see that there are risks and it is not a straightforward process”, he said.
Mr Clark had compiled a dossier identifying 14 environmental permit breaches by Rathlin Energy. “This was symptomatic of a company that does not take its responsibilities seriously”, he said.
He predicted there would be many more wellsites in the area. “If this goes ahead the chances are we will see many more sites across Holderness and East Yorkshire. Rathlin has already said they will drill up to six sites.”
A spokesperson for Rathlin Energy (UK) Limited, said: “We are pleased that the planning committee was minded to approve our planning application for West Newton B. This will enable us to continue our drilling and testing operations for conventional oil and/or gas and underscores the fact that we have and will continue to deliver our work in accordance with our permits.”
- The committee was delayed by 20 minutes while security contractors employed by the council carried out pat-down and bag searches of people attending the meeting. One woman was required to remove a wrist splint. After the meeting, representatives of Rathlin Energy were escorted from a side entrance of the committee room.