Ministers to override local councils on fracking applications

Rudd and ClarkAs widely predicted, the government has announced measures to take decisions on fracking plans out of local authority hands. It will also consider ruling where companies appeal against a refusal of planning permission.

A statement this morning by the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, and the Communities’ Secretary, Greg Clark, said shale gas applications would be “fast-tracked” through what they described as a “new, dedicated planning process”.

The statement said the Communities’ Secretary would “actively consider calling in on a case by case basis shale planning applications”. The government would also identify councils that were said to “repeatedly fail” to determine oil and gas applications with the 16-week statutory time-frame. Applications by these councils could be determined by the Communities’ Secretary in future.

Despite this, the statement said the plans would “ensure local people have a strong say over the development of shale exploration in their area”.

Today’s measures also include:

  • Adding shale applications to the lists of appeals that can be ‘recovered’, where decisions are made by Ministers, rather than planning inspectors
  • Ensuring planning call ins and appeals involving shale applications are “prioritised by the Planning Inspectorate”

The statement said: “Today’s measures will mean Ministers will consider calling in any application for shale exploration, and will recover appeals on a case-by-case basis”.

Amber Rudd said:

“To ensure we get this industry up and running we can’t have a planning system that sees applications dragged out for months, or even years on end. Oversight by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency of shale developments makes our commitment to safety and the environment crystal clear. We now need, above all else, a system that delivers timely planning decisions and works effectively for local people and developers.”

Greg Clark said:

“People’s safety and the environment will remain paramount and communities will always be involved in planning applications but no one benefits from uncertainty caused by delays in planning decisions. By fast tracking any appropriate applications today’s changes will tackle potential hold ups in the system.”

The news, extensively trailed last week, comes less than two months after Lancashire County Council refused permission to Cuadrilla to frack up to eight wells across two sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood.

Those applications took about a year from submission to decision and were the first involving high volume hydraulic fracturing to be considered in the UK since the earthquake at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site in 2011. But it was Cuadrilla that asked for a deferral of decisions in January 2015 when council planners recommended refusal of both schemes on noise grounds. The company then submitted new proposals, which were consulted on. It is now preparing an appeal.

Today’s statement said the government regarded shale was “a national priority” and ministers wanted to ensure that shale applications were not “frustrated by slow and confused decision making amongst councils, which benefits no one.”

“If planning applications for shale exploration developments take months or even years it can create uncertainty for communities and prevent the development of a potentially vital national industry”, the statement said.

“Local communities will remain fully involved in planning decisions with any shale application – whether decided by councils or government. And demanding planning rules to ensure shale development happens only at appropriate sites remain unchanged.”

“As a quasi-judicial process planning applications will always be considered with due process and a fair hearing – but today’s measures will prevent the long delays that mean uncertainty both for business and for local residents.”

The government will also press ahead with its plans to allow the drilling of boreholes for groundwater monitoring without the need for a planning application (permitted development rights).

Reaction from opponents

Frack Free Ryedale, which is campaigning against an application by Third Energy to frack at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire, told us:

“The announcement  shows that the Government are determined to push through the industry’s agenda to frack the length and breadth of the UK, bypassing local democracy in the process. This is in stark contrast to the government’s recent decision to allow local communities to veto planning applications for wind farms. Why should communities have a veto on non-polluting wind farms, yet decisions about fracking wells are being taken out of local control?”

“The government have clearly lost the argument and have given up trying to convince communities that fracking would benefit them. Now they are resorting to veiled threats and bullying tactics to get applications passed. No wonder support for fracking is at an all-time low, with only 21% supporting fracking in the latest DECC survey (compared to 75% who support renewables).”

“Our experience in North Yorkshire is that council planning departments work extremely hard to follow the rules on planning applications, and try to allow applicants and local communities to have their say. These are complicated, multi-faceted applications that require expert scrutiny, and often clarification is sought on a number of issues before a final decision is made. Rushing them through is only going to cause further problems down the line – something that we can ill afford to do when our water, air and public health is at risk.”

“Also, what would happen if the fracking company asked for an extension – would they be refused? This happened in Lancashire when Cuadrilla realised that the planning officers had recommended refusal of the application on the basis of traffic and noise. Cuadrilla immediately asked for an extension of two months to allow them time to rewrite the noise and traffic sections of the application. It would appear from the government’s statement that this would not be allowed in future – or is it one rule for the fracking companies, and one rule for the local communities?”

Industry reaction

Cuadrilla “warmly welcomed” the announcement, according to City AM. The newspaper quoted a Cuadrilla spokesperson as saying: “Local authorities are expected to assess and determine planning applications of all types within a certain timeframe so this announcement is primarily about getting the existing planning system to work as it is intended.”

“There is no good reason why an application for a shale gas exploration site should take three to four times longer to determine than an application for a major housing development, a supermarket or a large scale quarry.”

Ken Cronin, chief executive of the industry group, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, also quoted by City AM, said:

“Recent experience has shown that the planning process is unwieldy and the time taken for planning decisions has soared from three months to over a year, causing delay and cost and this is not [in] the interests of local people, the industry or indeed the British people”.

More reaction

Updated at 01.58 to add Frack Free Ryedale reaction and at 8.14 to add link to post on more reaction

10 replies »

  1. Surprise, Surprise, typically when the locals decide they don’t want Fracking in their backyards, the Oil and Gas lobbyists get to work greasing the wheels of government.

    This isnt over, local people will use all means necessary to prevent our natural environment being polluted for profits.

  2. Is the process in legal terms to designate fracking an NSIP – Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project? If so for the (few) remaining members of the public who are pro-fracking, how would they feel to know that other (if not all) significant and controversial planning projects – such as major housing developments – are also lined up to be designated as NSIPs? This is the dismantling of democracy as local participation in the planning system from both local government and local people is being systematically removed. Government cannot reasonably expect such controversial moves to be met with no resistance when the democratic process which prompted local participation and objection has been taken away. What do the Conservative MPs such as Nicholas Soames and Nick Herbert say? Soames called the idea of fracking in Sussex “silly” in the run up to the election and Herbert has repeatedly spoken of the fracking applications being inapproproate for certain locations (in his constitunecy). Would be interesting to hear their comments on this then. There must be an ever greater fracture in the Conservstive party behind the scenes.

  3. What is being proposed by the government is a a disgrace. It really is completely undemocratic. The reason applications have taken a long time to conclude is because they are complex, not for any other reason. Many of the submissions run to thousands of pages in length (including the EA Permit Applications). Indeed Cuadrilla requested deferments in Lancashire – delaying the process by three or four months.
    It is also wrong to suggest that local councillors are not capable of making complex decisions. The jury service, councillors and MPs for that matter could all be considered lay people – they are tasked with listening to evidence and experts and making an informed independent decision. These people represent the public in the decision making process. If the government is left to step in should any council over run the 16 week deadline and the SoS call in applications that are opposed then this is completely undemocratic and a whitewash. The only option open then is judicial review to hold government actions and decisions to account.
    This government is completely biased in favour of fracking – has publicly stated it is going all out for shale. At the same time weakening support for renewable energy and seeking a watering down of EU air pollution standards.
    I cannot believe all Conservative MPs and councillors will be pleased with the government’s actions. Remember it was a Conservative council in Lancashire that turned down Cuadrilla’s application. I also think Council officers will now be under huge pressure to process these complex decisions and at a time when huge cuts to staffing levels have been made.
    Public support for fracking is at an all time low and the government could not, in my opinion, have done anything worse to make opposition grow. People will not allow the government to ride roughshod over local opinion. As the various tranches of the 14th round are announced – I suspect the opposition and anger will only grow. The high handed and arrogant position taken by the government and Amber Rudd is not acceptable in 2015.

  4. “There is no good reason why an application for a shale gas exploration site should take three to four times longer to determine than an application for a major housing development, a supermarket or a large scale quarry.” Says Cuadrilla.
    In reality there are probably hundreds or good reasons – it all depends on the complexity of the application, the environmental and health impacts and how comprehensively (or not) the applicant has dealt with them. These fracking applications are for ‘test fracks’ or ‘flow tests’, but also quietly slide in ‘production’ for years to come, so planning councillors and officers need to be sure that all questions are answered and impacts known. The impact and risks of one fracking well will be multiplied by hundreds or thousands for production. The consequences if those risks become reality are immense – we all need clean water, air and good health. The profits will be private and easily transported away. The risk and cost of any impacts all remain with the community. The community, however, will have the decision taken from them after 16 weeks and decided in London. Localism indeed?

  5. So, the Conservatives won a convincing GE victory (I didnt vote for em BTW!) with safe extraction of shale gas as a manifesto commitment. Lancs CC and others drag out procedures, costing millions, and threatening all of the benefits that could happen. Non specialist councillors take decisions based on a few shouty people who talk about environmental issues that the Lancs Planning specialists and the Environment Agency have spent months working on, and are considered baseless. If the councillors want to be respected they should show respect to their planning officers. They also need to take account of expert technical advice.

    Suppose the council decided that vaccinations were harmful, and banned them in Lancashire? There are a load of ‘scientific’ opinions from people who are opposed to vaccination. Would that be proper?

    Its already written into law that this is a NSIP, and as such its correct that nationally important projects should override localism. How would any railway/canal/motorway have ever been built? All of the railways were built by act of parliament, as nimbyism always rejected the building of them. After the event, everyone basked in the economic activity it generated. Could be a bit like shale gas once people realise its a small impact for a massive payback? (Thats all assuming the gas is producable, but we are not even at that point yet)

    Of course its unpopular. Thats because as soon as there is a hint of it happening, the well oiled anti brigade start telling lies about water contamination/poisonous chemicals/breast cancer/birth defects/leaking wells etc. Pity its all pseudoscience!

    • There is an opportunity to provide gas and oil from UK onshore unconventional source rock such as shale and coal seams. The advocates of these sources of gas and oil, also known as fracking, are consistent in being coy about how much gas and oil these unconventional sources can provide. A self respecting advocate of fracking would overcome that coyness.

  6. http://infrastructure.planninginspectorate.gov.uk/application-process/the-process/
    Interesting to see that a Planning Inspector would be given 9 months to determine an NSIP and then there is a further six weeks after a decision is made to allow for further challenge on the decision reached. Yet a local planning is allowed 16 weeks to final decision and the matter is taken out of their hands if they dare to overrun – they government is so keen to push shale that they no doubt wouldn’t consider fracking an NSIP because (in my opinion it wouldn’t qualify as it stands now) and because the decision would actually take LONGER. This is not fast tracking it is steam rolling and it is completely undemocratic.

  7. If Caudrilla well is not commercial flow rate viable then all these hassle and wrangling are pretty much waste of time and money.

  8. Anyone still unsure of what hydraulic fracturing is, watch the very interesting documentary ‘GASLAND Part II’ by J Fox and then decide. It’s been going on in the US for at least 10 years. Just watch it.

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