Mark Robinson, Campaigns and Policy Assistant at Campaign to Protect Rural England, argues that radical changes are needed to national planning policy to prevent the threat of fracking to the countryside and the communities who live and enjoy it.
“The issue is the guidance“, said Jim Cameron of CPRE Cheshire, as I asked about his experiences grappling with the local decision-making over hydraulic fracturing.
This was not the first time I’ve heard that, despite the substantive weight of opinion and evidence against fracking, operations were still being approved on the basis of guidelines that robustly defend the industry. Having spoken to people across the CPRE Network, and hearing this same point reiterated time and time again, it’s clear that the national framework behind fracking policy is in need of an update.
The shale tide approaches
As a countryside charity, CPRE has been worried about the impacts of fracking since its first brief UK appearance in 2011. Unlike the US, fracking on a commercial scale in the UK would result in drills being constructed much closer to people’s homes. Closer proximity of wells to nearby communities increases their risk of exposure to water contaminated by the process, health issues and seismic tremors, from an industry that continues to prove resistant to regulation. It can only be described as a double whammy that fracking would also stall the UK’s efforts to tackle climate change, the biggest threat of all to the countryside.
Despite these concerns, fracking companies are pushing through their expansion plans with vigour. Just last month, INEOS shale won the right to take the National Trust to the High Court over its refusal to allow seismic testing in Clumber Park estate. INEOS has also taken advantage of government-granted special treatment by appealing for ministers to decide applications which the company felt councils were taking too long to approve.
While companies claim to let communities have a say, local opinion turns out only to be valid when it aligns with that of the applicant.
Local opposition is instead mostly met with appeals and injunctions, as the industry turns to a pro-shale government to bypass the democratic process.
Local authorities are increasingly fighting against these aggressive industry tactics with any available tools at their disposal. Planning guidance offers little substance for councils seeking to oppose fracking applications, so planning committees are making do with whatever they can use.
In Derbyshire, councillors voted last month to position themselves against INEOS’s shale gas exploration plans at Bramleymoor Lane on grounds of noise, traffic and impacts on the Green Belt. A week earlier, Rotherham borough council voted unanimously to stand against a similar INEOS application in Harthill, on wildlife and road safety grounds. Three weeks ago, Rotherham refused another application by INEOS for shale gas exploration due to potential wildlife harm and traffic impacts.
In their recent rejection of an IGas application, Cheshire West and Cheshire Council went one step further. Councillors employed their own local planning policy to claim that testing for a gas well did not address climate change or make the best use of renewable energy. As Third Energy begins to take equipment off the Kirby Misperton site in Ryedale to deal with its scrutinised finances, North Yorkshire councils are defending a joint ‘minerals and waste plan’ with far stronger safeguards on fracking than the current regulatory landscape provides.
Yet local authorities can only go so far when the national guidance from which policy is developed favours fracking, given that the government is intent on a shale energy revolution.
National policy for prioritising fracking
The primary source of guidance relied on by local government when making decisions on applications, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), is vague at best, and at worst outwardly pro-fracking.
According to Kate Atkinson in CPRE North Yorkshire, the industry is hanging largely onto one paragraph (144) in the NPPF to defend their applications, which states that local authorities should ‘give great weight to the benefits of mineral extraction’. Kate pointed out, quite rightly, that there is no indication that this ‘great weight’ designation is any more important than others, such as the ‘great weight’ given to conserving the landscape and scenic beauty of AONBs, National Parks, and designated heritage assets. Furthermore, paragraph 144 also states that local authorities should,
“ensure, in granting planning permission for mineral development, that there are no unacceptable adverse impacts on the natural and historic environment, human health or aviation safety, and take into account the cumulative effect of multiple impacts from individual sites and/or from a number of sites in a locality.”
But much of this is put to one side as planning officers frequently conclude in their recommendations that approval of shale gas exploration or extraction would not compromise any of the above considerations. Clearly, the paragraph is being interpreted as one where fracking takes precedent.
The lack of attention given to climate change in the NPPF is an equally serious issue.
Any fracking operations, currently or soon-to-be approved, have been permitted despite the legitimate weight of evidence claiming that shale oil or gas extraction would be incompatible with the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets – let alone the even stricter targets of the Paris Agreement.
Kia Trainor, of CPRE Sussex, pointed out how this leads to a burgeoning gap between political rhetoric and policy reality. The government’s new ‘clean growth’ narrative directly contradicts the NPPF’s prioritisation of energy security and the economic benefits of fracking above threats to the climate.
Supporting these NPPF recommendations is a spate of new legal instruments and policy statements Westminster has rolled out since 2013, with the intention of fast-tracking fracking applications through the planning system. Among them is a weak and vague definition of fracking that provides ample opportunity to evade regulations and scrutiny. Fracking is defined in the Infrastructure Act 2015 by the amount of fluid used at each stage of the process – any operations under these amounts can avoid regulatory safeguards such as, independent well inspection and well sealing after use.
Yet these definitions would not have even covered the activity that caused the Preese Hall earthquake in 2011 that led to a temporary fracking moratorium. Neither would it cover 43% of US wells between 2000-2010 – a country famed for its lack of regulatory safeguards.
Furthermore, fracking currently defined is allowing dubious activities such as acidisation in the Weald Basin to be classed as ‘conventional’ extraction by operators, despite the very similar risks associated with this activity to those presented by fracking. Such issues require a much broader definition of fracking and the threats it poses to climate change and public health.
Return of the planners
If we want to change the game, we need to change the rules by which it’s played.
The revised NPPF, currently out for consultation, pushes the case for fracking even further by calling on local authorities to
“recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons… and put in place policies to facilitate their exploration and extraction”.
This is hugely concerning for those already struggling to repel fracking applications using a planning system weighted against them. As a result, the NPPF consultation is perhaps the last opportunity available to call for a more balanced interpretation of the risks and benefits that fracking presents.
The good news is that we have the tools in our hands to get the changes required. Government policy is swinging drastically away from its previously robust pursuit of fracking. The recent Clean Growth Strategy doesn’t mention the controversial technique at all, and a new climate change minister is placing enormous effort into getting the UK back on the international stage as a climate leader. Such a change in government narrative provides ample opportunity to argue, in response to the revised NPPF, that planning guidelines must contain a much healthier consideration of climate change, communities and the local environmental impact of controversial activities such as fracking. Indeed, such a change might deliver a decisive blow to an industry which, until now, has enjoyed undue privileges from government despite a torrent of public opposition.
The ultimate tool we need in this campaign though is our own agency – a self-belief that we can make a difference. The planning committees referred to above, where fracking was decisively rejected, were full to the brim of local people, many of whom spoke one after another with a persuasive combination of individual experience and robust knowledge of the elements of planning policy that would be infringed by such an application being approved.
Speakers at Derbyshire County Council meeting considering INEOS plans for shale gas exploration at Marsh Lane, 5 February 2018. Photos: DrillOrDrop
“It was uplifting to hear Andy Tickle of CPRE South Yorkshire explain how they had been providing help to individuals seeking advice on the planning system, and how they and Friends of the Earth are co-hosting training on public inquiries, with many coming up this year.”
Andy also told me how inspired he had been by the mobilisation of communities that had previously not been involved in campaigning:
“In 15 years of working here, I’ve never seen so much anger against a threat to the countryside.”
It was encouraging to hear how CPRE had been engaging with this, whether through drafting objections to fracking applications, mobilising communities to engage in the planning system and joining wide coalitions that sees multiple interests unite in opposition to an unwanted industry.
I hope this momentum will continue this year as many big decisions are made on the future of fracking, and with it our countryside, under threat from a dangerous and unnecessary activity with no economic, social or environmental licence.
- Mark Robinson works primarily on energy, infrastructure and climate change. His role is part of a graduate scheme established by CPRE in 2016 to support graduates and young workers to get a foothold in the environmental sector. Mark holds an MSc in Environmental Sustainability from the University of Edinburgh and a BA (Hons) in Geography from Lancaster University.