As 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?”
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”.
Updated at 01.58 to add Frack Free Ryedale reaction and at 8.14 to add link to post on more reaction