Who should decide on fracking came under the spotlight on BBC Question Time from Blackpool last night.
The Conservative panellist, Ken Clarke, said the Government should decide because he believed national interest outweighed local opinion.
The former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, while supporting fracking, said local people could be given the say through a local referendum.
Labour’s Owen Smith, the Shadow Northern Ireland Spokesperson, said the Government had overblown the benefits of fracking and lied about giving local views priority. This wouldn’t happen under Labour, he said.
The politicians were responding to an audience question:
“Is it fair that on two occasions planning permission to frack this area was not approved by the council and the government overruled us?”
The Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, granted planning permission for Cuadrilla’s fracking scheme at Preston New Road, near Blackpool. He also said he was minded to approve a similar proposal at Roseacre Wood. Both applications had been refused by Lancashire County Council.
Last night’s Question Time also heard from Michelle Dewberry, winner of The Apprentice in 2016, and now a TV presenter and businesswoman. She said the fracking industry had failed to win over people. Another panellist, Blue Peter and Winter Olympics presenter Radzi Chinyanganya, called for a move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The issue of who should decide on fracking plans is now being investigated by a parliamentary select committee.
One option would be to regard fracking as nationally-significant infrastructure, where decisions are automatically made by ministers.
Lancashire County Council said no to national decision-making last week. Fylde, the district council covering Cuadrilla’s sites, is being recommended by officers to say there is “merit” in taking fracking decisions out of local control. (DrillOrDrop report)
One member of the largely anti-fracking Question Time audience contrasted how the will of the people was being used to support Brexit but not local fracking decisions.
Another said a shale gas industry would generate “billions of pounds” of tax revenue and “millions for the local economy”.
“Everyone in this room is going to go home tonight and put their gas central heating on. A wind turbine is not going to heat your house. It was the Labour Party in 2008 that actually got the ball rolling on shale gas and issued the exploratory drilling licences.
“This is under British regulations and British gas engineers, the best in the world. We will do it right.”
The final comment from the audience was:
“I wonder if the decision would have been overturned in the same way if the fracking was taking place south of Watford.”
Who said what about who decides?
“I think fracking, for whatever reason, is an industry that has completely failed to win over and convince people of their arguments.
“I think people are concerned about safety. People don’t want earthquakes and big firms denying all knowledge and then admitting down the line that maybe it is.
“It is a real safety concern and until those safety concerns are properly addressed and people understand what’s going on, until that point is reached, we’ve got a problem. I don’t understand what it’s going to take, because it hasn’t yet happened that that industry has managed to get people bought into what they’re doing and the benefits of it and address their real safety concerns.”
Asked if fracking would happen, she said:
“I think it is something that is not still understood enough to the degree where we can make a proper informed decision about it and I don’t quite understand why it is a very unpopular industry, and I understand people’s concerns here, if it was on my back garden I’d have concerns about it as well. But I just think that the industry needs to work closely with government regulations and residents to properly communicate what it is doing and to reassure those safety concerns if it wants to get the go ahead.”
“It’s right of Government to have concerns. Michelle’s point about a very effective lobby against fracking – and they’ve been very good at it – they’ve been very good at putting the fear of God into people.
“Look, no form of the extractive industry doesn’t bring some degree of risk with it, whether it is coal mining or whatever it may be.
“We have been fracking since the 1950s. America has done more of it than we’ve done but even we’ve done a bit of fracking in this country.
“What you have got in this part of England is the most phenomenal reserve of natural gas.
“Exploited carefully and sensibly, it would not leave great scars on the landscape like coal mining did in many areas and it would revolutionise the economy of the northwest of England by providing tens of thousands of well-paid jobs.”
To shouts from the audience, he said:
“We must be mad, we must be mad, to look a gift-horse in the mouth.”
The audience booed when he said:
“It’s unpopular because people don’t like things in their back yard obviously and because the campaign has been effective against it.
“Of course we have a good local planning system but in big things of national importance the Government must have a role particularly nowadays.”
He said if Isambard Kingdom Brunel were building a railway from London to Bristol, he would have been advised not to go through the planning system. Mr Clarke likened fracking to building new roads, railways and airport runways. He said:
“You take account of local opinion.”
David Dimbleby: “and then ignore it?”
“You don’t ignore it but the national interest outweighs that and if the local opinion is just rejecting advice of the national geological survey, the scientific world, about whether there are risks involved in fracking or not, I think a Government is entitled to say in the national interest I think we’re going ahead.”
Mr Clark said:
“We have had decades of fracking and all this campaigning about all the dreadful things that are supposed to happen, your water will be poisoned, you’ll have earthquakes…”
David Dimbleby: “They did have earthquakes
Mr Clark said the Blackpool event was “not detectable by a human being on the surface. It was a low level tremor.”
Several people in the audience said “I felt it”.
At least nine people put up their hands when asked if they had felt the earthquake connected to fracking at Cuadrilla’s in 2011.
“We talk about well blow outs, we talk about its carbon intensity, we talk about it’s [being] water intensive but the very big issue is that if we’re serious about protecting this blue marvel that we’re on we need to move away from fossil fuels and really embrace renewable energy. In this area, there’s a lot of wind, why don’t we use it?”
“The benefits of fracking are totally overblown. The volume of jobs will be tiny, the reserves that we have are much less than America or France or some of the other places where they have shale gas to frack. In some of those places, like France, they have decided not go after it.
“Why did we have the Tories overruling local people? It was because they decided round the time of them getting elected in 2010 that it was a good idea for them to try to mimic the States. They could sell to people, as part of their election platform, that they were going to unveil this great new industrial revolution. It was going to produce jobs and cheap, free energy practically in this country. All a load of rubbish.
“The other thing they lied to people about was their suggestion that local people and local decisions will be given primacy. That clearly hasn’t happened here. It should have happened and if it had happened we would not have the fracking in Blackpool. It wouldn’t happen under a Labour Government.”
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