A group representing people living near Cuadrilla’s shale gas site on the Ribble Estuary has vowed to continue its fight against a bid to relax conditions on noise limits.
This is despite advice from officials that the company can’t make noise at the level it wanted at the site at Becconsall.
Cuadrilla applied last month to increase the maximum daytime noise limit from 42 to 55 decibels (dB), extend daytime working to 9pm and carry out operations at night.
The company said the conditions, set in 2014 on restoring the site, placed an “unreasonable restriction on the activity not consistent with Minerals Planning Policy”.
But a report to councillors, who are due to discuss the bid tomorrow (1 March 2017,) said the company’s proposed noise limit of 55 dB would conflict with government guidance.
The report, by planning officer Jonathan Haine, has recommended the committee approve a lower noise limit of 50 dB and a shorter working day. All night time working has been removed from the revised application.
Despite this, a residents’ group remains unhappy about the revised noise conditions and the way the application has been handled.
Key planning issue
Noise has been a key planning issue at the Becconsall site because it is close to the Ribble Estuary Special Protection Area, a site of European importance for overwintering birds.
The 2014 noise condition was set at 42 dB to “safeguard the amenity of local residents and to prevent disturbance to birds”, as well as to conform with local planning policy.
Yesterday, Ribble Estuary Against Fracking (REAF) presented an independent noise assessment to a private pre-meeting of Lancashire’s development control committee.
REAF said the 55 dB limit would have been contrary to paragraph 123 of the National Planning Policy Framework and paragraphs 19 and 21 of Planning Policy Guidance on minerals.
DrillOrDrop understands that REAF’s noise assessment said the revised 50 dB limit would be unacceptable too. The group has also criticised plans to measure noise at the nearest home, rather than on the edge of the site, as required in the 2014 conditions.
REAF, the only speaker at yesterday’s session, said the planning officer had ignored its noise assessment:
“The officer’s report is incomplete. It is totally misleading and silent on the submission of a peer reviewed noise assessment report submitted by REAF.”
In his report, Mr Haine said Government guidance required noise to be no more than 10 dB above the background level. He conceded 50 dB may still be more than 10 dB above background. But he said this may be acceptable because the guidance also said conditions should not place an unreasonable burden on the operator.
He also said the restoration work would be short-term and the guidance allowed for a noise level of 70 dB for this sort of operation.
Lancashire County Council confirmed to DrillOrDrop in October 2016 that it had pre-application discussions with Cuadrilla on the noise levels at Becconsall (DrillOrDrop report).
REAF’s spokesperson questioned why the lower noise level had not been included in the application, rather than changed later in the planning officer’s report.
“His duty is to advise the Applicant. He would be aware that the original proposals had substantial conflict with Government policy. So what was his advice to the applicant?
“To suggest they present an application that would be rejected is not really sound advice.”
Friends of the Earth has criticised the county council for not consulting Natural England on Cuadrilla’s noise application or the revisions to noise limits.
The officer’s report said this was unnecessary because restoration would be carried out in the summer of 2017 and the work would have no impact on over-wintering birds.
There has also been criticism of the way the council has handled the application. Friends of the Earth said applications to vary conditions should be subject to eight or 13-week determination periods. There had not been enough time to consider the proposal, the group said.
A spokesperson for REAF added:
“This application has been rushed through the planning system in record time.”
Mr Haine said in his report the eight and 13-week timescales were benchmarks against which councils were assessed by government on their performance. They were not “statutory timescales” after which a decision may be taken, he said.
He said the site notice was posted on 6 February 2017 and the application advertised in a newspaper on 8 February. This was within the 21 days required before taking a decision, he said.
Friends of the Earth also said the council had used the wrong measurement of noise in the site notice. The notice said 55 dB(a), not 55 dB LAeq (1hour) (free field) as applied for. Mr Haines accepted that this was a mistake but he did not consider the application had been “misadvertised”.
A REAF spokesperson said:
“Shale gas applications must be presented correctly. Operational requirements must be correct at time of determination for committee members to make informed decisions. Once a condition has met the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework six-point test then that condition must be adhered to. REAF will now challenge the latest reduced proposals.”
DrillOrDrop invited Lancashire County Council to respond to the criticism. The council said:
“Cuadrilla revised its application to reduce the noise levels. An email from the applicant is on the website. This was part of the normal planning negotiation process.”
The council said the problems with 55dB were not picked up before the application was submitted because pre-application advice did not go into that level of detail.
“It is more concerned with the need for an application (or not), the process for the application, and the scope of issues that we would expect to see addressed in the application. It was only when the application was submitted that LCC became aware of the 55dB level.”
There had not been a fresh consultation on the revision of the application, the council said.
“This is because it is a substantial improvement on what was proposed. The application was for 55dB daytime and 42dB nightime. The revision was for 50dB daytime and 0dB nightime (ie no night working). Because of the significant betterment, there is no legal requirement to re-consult.”
The council confirmed that it had received REAF’s objection and noise assessment but after the deadline for completion of the officer’s report.
“Both will be referred to in the update sheet presented to the Committee. In any event, the acoustic report is now out of date because it is based on the old noise level of 55dB that was originally submitted.”