The Cuadrilla public inquiry which closed this week defined the arguments that are likely to be rehearsed across the country when new fracking applications are decided.
The company said its shale gas plans in the Fylde area of Lancashire should be approved because of the national need for gas. This was backed by government policy, Cuadrilla argued, particularly a statement made by the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, in September last year.
Opponents including Lancashire County Council and residents’ groups said there was no national policy to explore for shale gas at unsuitable sites. They said the impacts of the proposals at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood would be unacceptable. The effect of noise and light pollution, increased traffic and the impacts on landscape outweighed the benefits.
DrillOrDrop has looked at the local and national planning guidance referred to in the inquiry and you can read our detailed review here.
Need for shale gas
Cuadrilla said its exploration plans were supported by the statement made by Amber Rudd on 16th September 2015. In it she said:
“The Government therefore considers that there is a clear need to seize the opportunity now to explore and test our shale potential.”
The company also argued that its plans complied with paragraph 91 of the Planning Practice Guidance on minerals development:
“There is a pressing need to establish – through exploratory drilling – whether or not there are sufficient recoverable quantities of unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale gas”.
The opponents argued that the written ministerial statement did not seek to:
- Displace local planning policy
- Impose outcomes in individual cases
- Alter existing policy
Roseacre Awareness Group told the inquiry:
“It is not national policy to encourage shale gas exploration in unsuitable locations. Safety and sustainability are key considerations. Even assuming a national need for exploration, there is no such need for exploration at Roseacre Wood”.
And Friends of the Earth concluded:
“The written ministerial statement does not favour high volume hydraulic fracturing in the United Kingdom above other methods of obtaining shale gas. Nor does it operate to create a presumption in favour of developments such as these proposals. Nor does it displace the Development Plan. Nor does it reduce the statutory duties under the Climate Change Act 2008. Nor is the Ministerial Statement akin to policy that has been tested by formal public consultation.”
Cuadrilla argued that the impacts of the proposed sites were: “of short duration and strictly controlled and limited by conditions.”
Opponents argued that impacts would cause demonstrable harm and had not been eliminated or reduced to acceptable levels.
On noise impacts, for example, Cuadrilla said the levels predicted for the two sites complied with national planning policies and would set a precedent for future shale gas developments.
Nathalie Lieven, Cuadrilla’s barrister said:
“We consider that the appropriate noise level to ensure no adverse effects on health and quality of life are those set out in PPG [Planning Practice Guidance] Minerals. We have demonstrated that with mitigation measures these limits can be achieved, therefore complying with the second criteria of the paragraph 123 of the NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework].”
But the opponents said the 55 decibels proposed during the day and 42 at night were too high. The predictions, they argued, did not properly take account of background levels, duration, noise characteristics or the impact on local people.
Ashley Bowes, the barrister for the Preston New Road Action Group, said:
“A project which produced noise at a level which was significant and adverse for 14 months would be demonstrably unsustainable and the only proper response to such a proposals is to withhold planning permission for that reason alone.”
On traffic impacts, Cuadrilla had estimated that each site would generate 50 two-way movements by heavy goods vehicles each day at peak times.
At the inquiry, Cuadrilla argued that the transport implications of the Roseacre Wood proposal had been overstated by the council and it was not possible to say the impacts of traffic would be severe or that they conflicted with national and local planning policy.
Lancashire County Council said the company had not reduced harmful impacts of traffic to acceptable levels, in breach of local planning policy. The council said Cuadrilla had not created safe and suitable access and the residual cumulative impacts of the development were severe, both of which breached the National Planning Policy Framework.
Alan Evans, the barrister for the council, said:
“Need and economic benefits are not sufficient countervailing factors in the planning balance. The appeal should be recommended to be dismissed.”
We have reviewed the planning guidance on all the impacts discussed at the inquiry and other issues. Link here for our detailed report
What happens now?
The inquiry inspector, Wendy McKay, is expected to announce within the next two weeks when she will complete her report. This will go to the Local Government Secretary, Greg Clark, who will make the final decision. There is no statutory time limit for the inquiry report or Mr Clark’s decision.