DrillOrDrop has reported from two shale gas public inquiries this month. Ruth Hayhurst reflects on the challenges facing local people when they take on the industry.
On Tuesday people will line up to tell a public inquiry why they don’t want an INEOS shale gas well in the south Yorkshire village of Harthill.
At another inquiry in Lancashire, which finished last week, more than 70 people spoke out against Cuadrilla’s fracking plans near the village of Roseacre.
They included farmers, teachers, local councillors, a lorry driver and school governor, carers, parents, and a retired local government officer. They talked about the risks of articulated lorries delivering large loads along quiet, narrow and winding country lanes. Many said they had lived in the area for 15 or more years, some for 40 years.
They were not professional planners, ecologists, noise experts or highway consultants. They developed their cases in their spare time at kitchen tables and at meetings in the homes of neighbours. They faced the prospect of questions from Cuadrilla’s barrister, Nathalie Lieven, described as one of the UK’s leading silks.
At the Harthill inquiry, in Rotherham, people making public statements have a choice of being cross-examined by Gordon Steele, INEOS’s QC. He is described by his chambers as “one of the finest advocates in Scotland”. In the opening week of the inquiry, he was supported by eight INEOS executives and consultants and more are expected to attend the hearing next week. If the public participants decide not to be questioned, they have been warned that their testimony will “hold less weight” with the inspector.
Many of the people that DrillOrDrop spoke to at both inquiries believe they had a good case but for many reasons they felt at a disadvantage.
In Lancashire, Roseacre Awareness Group, the community group opposing Cuadrilla, chose to play a formal role at the inquiry, as what is known as a Rule 6 party, represented by a barrister. The group said the cost of the nine-day hearing was around £40,000. This had to be raised by local events and from donations.
Barbara Richardson, the chair of Roseacre Awareness Group, said this figure did not include thousands of hours that volunteers put in for free:
“There is a considerable burden placed on the community. Ours is only a small group and the stress has been tremendous but we are resolved to protect our community which makes us so determined to fight every step of the way.”
During the inquiry, the group faced the challenge of having to evaluate extra information provided at short notice by Cuadrilla. Mrs Richardson said the company submitted 33 new documents and “copious amounts of raw traffic data”.
“They have the resources to react quickly”, she said.
“Disadvantaged and prejudiced”
In Rotherham, the local opposition group, Harthill Against Fracking, faced a complex challenge just days before the inquiry opened.
It emerged during April that INEOS had submitted to the Planning Inspectorate alternative plans to organise vehicles delivering to the proposed site. They were set out in a 140-page document called “an enhanced traffic management plan”. The new proposals included 23 passing places, two sections of the route managed by stop-go boards and the use of banksmen to control traffic.
On 10 April, INEOS’s consultant sent the document to some third parties with an email which said it “contains no new proposals; simply a refinement of the traffic mitigation measures that had already been proposed.”
Deborah Gibson, of Harthill Against Fracking, told the inquiry’s opening day:
“Most of the people in Harthill who are opposing the application go to work. We are having to do all our opposition work in the evening. We are disadvantaged and prejudiced because of this submission.”
Mrs Gibson said one member of the group had the chance to look at the new proposals only six working days before the inquiry opened. She said:
“It is hard work. We are opposing professional people who are paid to do this every day. We are not professionals. We are doing this as voluntary work.”
It was unclear until the inquiry opened whether the inspector would allow the INEOS revised plans to be considered. As a result, Harthill Against Fracking had to prepare two presentations to the inquiry, one based on the original plans and one on the new version.
Mrs Gibson told DrillOrDrop:
“This felt like a huge rush.
“For the last year, we have been on a steep learning curve about planning control procedures. We are not professionals. We are trying to make sense of it. This last piece of information [from INEOS] has come as another hurdle.”
Harthill Against Fracking did not apply for Rule 6 status. Its participation at the inquiry was at the discretion of the inspector, Stephen Roscoe. He did allow the group to make a presentation. But he refused Harthill Against Fracking a four-week adjournment for it to examine the company’s new proposals.
Mrs Gibson said:
“It seems that there is very little recourse for those of us who cannot afford a good barrister or advice.”
“The appeal process should not be used to evolve a scheme”
Friends of the Earth, which opposed the INEOS application, told the inquiry it had not been informed of the new traffic proposals. Its planner, Magnus Gallie, argued unsuccessfully that the enhanced management plan should not be considered. He said:
“The appeal process should not be used to evolve a scheme and it is important that what is considered by the Inspector is essentially what was considered by the local planning authority, and on which interested people’s views were sought.”
CPRE also opposed consideration of the new traffic proposals. Its representative, Andy Tickle, told the inquiry:
“These changes [in the enhanced traffic management plan], in our view, and if accepted, materially alter the nature of the application and its local impact, potentially permanently.”
Mr Tickle said of the consultation on the new proposals:
“[It] appears to us to have been both too short and incomplete to allow for properly seeking interested people’s views, and in particular, non-statutory parties.”
He argued that the so-called Wheatcroft principle on fairness to third parties applied in this case. This is a principle in planning law that helps inquiry inspectors to decide whether to accept changes to appeal schemes.
Under the Wheatcroft principle, amendments would not be accepted if the development was so changed that to allow consideration of it would deprive those who should have been consulted on it the opportunity for consultation.
Gordon Steele, for INEOS, argued that the Wheatcroft principle did not apply because the enhanced traffic management plan did not change the proposals for a shale gas exploration well. He said the traffic management plan was covered by proposed conditions not the substance of the application.
Officers had Rotherham Borough Council had thought the new proposals dealt with their highway safety concerns and they recommended the council drop its highways objection at the inquiry. Members of the council’s planning board overruled the officers voted to maintain the opposition on highway grounds.
The inspector backed the company’s argument and allowed the inquiry to consider the new scheme. Referring to the cost of legal and technical support, Deborah Gibson, of Harthill Against Fracking, commented:
“What it has come down to is who has the biggest pockets. It is not us, or the council. It is INEOS. And that feels incredibly undemocratic.”
Fracking, planning and the future
In future, local communities could see their role change in decisions about shale gas exploration and fracking.
Tomorrow a committee of MPs will question representatives of the shale gas industry and environmental groups about whether fracking developments should be regarded as nationally-significant infrastructure. Decisions on these projects are taken out of the hands of local authorities and made instead by a government-appointed inspector.
Tomorrow’s meeting of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee will hear from INEOS, Cuadrilla, the industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas, as well as Friends of the Earth and CPRE. Nearly 200 people have submitted written comments to the committee’s inquiry. Only one comment unequivocally supported the idea.
In addition, the government is consulting on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, the guidelines for decisions on all developments.
The proposed revisions require local councils in England to develop policies that “facilitate” onshore oil and gas developments, “recognise the benefits” of exploration and extraction when deciding applications and “plan positively” for them.
The deadline for comments is Thursday 10 May 2018. Responses can be submitted
- online: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/NPPFconsultation
- by email using a consultation formand sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
- by post to Planning Policy Consultation Team Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government 3rd floor, South East Fry Building 2 Marsham Street LONDON SW1P 4DF