A Lancashire resident has been refused permission to take court action against the Communities’ Secretary, Sajid Javid, over Cuadrilla’s second shale gas site at Roseacre Wood.
Jules Burton, who lives 500m from the site, heard this morning that his challenge had been blocked by the Honourable Mr Justice Dove. This is the High Court judge who on Wednesday dismissed two local challenges against Mr Javid over the Preston New Road fracking site. (Breaking news, details and the judge’s ruling)
Mr Burton said he was astonished by today’s news. He described the ruling as “not merely questionable but worrying in the extreme”.
He said it had “rendered the democratic decision process to nothing more than window dressing”.
Reopening the inquiry
Mr Burton’s challenge centred on the decision by Mr Javid to reopen the public inquiry on Roseacre Wood.
The Communities Secretary said on 6 October last year that he was minded to approve planning permission for the site. This was despite objections from parish and district councils, refusal of planning permission by Lancashire County Council on road safety grounds and a recommendation to reject Cuadrilla’s appeal for the same reason by the inspector at a 19-day public inquiry.
Mr Javid said Cuadrilla had failed to provide adequate evidence that it had properly addressed the safety issues. The reopened inquiry would, he said, give the company the opportunity to “provide additional evidence on this point.”
Mr Burton argued that reopening the inquiry was “irrational”, “tainted by bias” and amounted to an abuse of power”.
He said it was “inconceivable” that the Secretary of State would allow an unsuccessful objector an opportunity to present new evidence after an inquiry had closed.
He added that the Secretary of State had not consulted with parties at the inquiry about whether the proceedings should be reopened and had not considered the financial impact and distress this would have on local people.
In his ruling on Mr Burton’s challenge, Mr Justice Dove said:
“I am satisfied that it would not be appropriate to grant permission in this case.”
He said there was no legal requirement for the Secretary of State to consult before reopening the inquiry. Although the minister had not expressly taken account of the financial burden on objectors in reopening the inquiry, this did not give rise to any error of law, the judge added.
Mr Burton had criticised the decision by Mr Javid to replace Wendy McKay, the inspector at the original inquiry. He said:
“The new planning inspector will have no prior knowledge of evidence previously submitted and will, therefore, be completely unfamiliar with the issues around the Roseacre Wood site.
“This will mean yet more stress and uncertainty for the community and more cost and effort for the local campaigning group.
“The Secretary of State can no longer be seen as impartial in this matter and his proposed re-opening of the Public Inquiry is, in my opinion, an abuse of process.”
But the judge said:
“It was not necessary for the reopened inquiry to be before the same Inspector, and there is no reason to infer bias from the proposal that another, entirely independent, Inspector should be commissioned to hear the reopened inquiry.”
Mr Justice Dove ordered Mr Burton to pay the Secretary of State’s costs of £2,055 within 14 days but turned down Cuadrilla’s claim for costs.
When asked if he would pursue the case, Mr Burton said: “I cannot afford to”.
“Democratic process nothing more than window-dressing”
Mr Burton told DrillOrDrop this afternoon:
“I find this decision not merely questionable but worrying in the extreme.
“Never before has a Planning Inquiry been re-opened simply to allow one side to have another go – having, in Cuadrilla’s, case already had two and a half years and four attempts to come up with a suitable traffic mitigation programme.”
As a result of the ruling, he said he believed British democracy had been replaced by “a wholly autocratic dictatorship”.
“The Roseacre Wood application was refused by the Parish Council, refused by the Borough Council, refused by the County Council and refused by an independent Planning Inspector.
“For one man to so skew the planning process and to overrule all those decisions without so much as looking at the site, declaring that he knows better than all the experts put together, renders the democratic decision process to nothing more than window dressing.”
Mr Burton described the timing of the ruling, designed to reach him over Easter, as “fortuitous for both Sajid Javid and Cuadrilla”.
He said the decision to reopen the inquiry and the restrictions imposed on it called into question the minister’s impartiality.
“Firstly this re-opened inquiry will be held at a venue decided by him for his convenience.
“Secondly, a different Planning Inspector is to be appointed since Mrs McKay (who chaired the original Inquiry) has clearly made up her mind.
“In the interests of democracy (the phrase used by the Secretary of State when explaining his decision and seemingly oblivious to any implicit irony) a new Planning Inspector would be appointed whose decision would not be swayed by any of the original findings.
“Finally, none of the evidence presented at the first half of the Planning Inquiry is to be made available to or referred to at this re-opened hearing.
“Surely since this is therefore new evidence to be heard by a new Inspector it must qualify as a completely new hearing – something completely without precedent in the annals of planning decisions.”
Inquiry arrangements and Cuadrilla reaction
The Planning Inspectorate has confirmed that the inquiry will reopen on 10 April 2018 and is expected to last six-eight days at a venue to be decided.
BBC News quoted Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan:
“We shall be using the time between now and the re-opened public inquiry to undertake further traffic surveys and assessments which will inform updated transport plans for the proposed Roseacre Wood exploration site.”
Updated: 19/4/2017 with inquiry arrangements quote from Francis Egan