Moving decisions on fracking plans to a national level contradicts the principles of localism and would probably exacerbate mistrust between communities and the industry, MPs said today.
A report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee warned the Government against its proposal to bring fracking applications under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime.
The committee concluded that Mineral Planning Authorities were best placed to understand the local area and how fracking could best take place.
These conclusions were opposed by the shale gas industry body. But they were welcomed by the Local Goverment Association, two environmental campaign organisations and MP Kevin Hollinkrake, whose constituency includes a proposed fracking site.
Ministers outlined the proposal in a Written Ministerial Statement issued in May (details). A promised consultation has not yet been announced.
The committee’s chair, Clive Betts MP, said today:
“Taking decision making powers away from local planning authorities would be a backward step. It would remove the important link between fracking applications and Local Plans and be hugely harmful to local democracy and the principles and spirit of localism.
“It is Mineral Planning Authorities that have the knowledge of their areas needed to judge the impacts of fracking, not Ministers sitting in Whitehall.
“Any move to alter this process also seriously risks worsening the often-strained relationship between local residents and the fracking industry. The Government has failed to provide any justification as to why fracking is a special case and should be included in the regime in contrast to general mineral applications.”
The report said the NSIP regime was unlikely to speed up the application process for fracking. It warned that if the Government went ahead, there should be an urgent National Policy Statement to ensure that the cumulative impact of applications was considered automatically and every decision was consistent with Local Plans.
The committee also opposed proposals to treat non-fracking shale gas applications as permitted development, without the need to go through the planning system. The report said:
“Shale gas development of any type should not be classed as a permitted development. Given the contentious nature of fracking, local communities should be able to have a say in whether this type of development takes place, particularly as concerns about the construction, locations and cumulative impact of drill pads are yet to be assuaged by the Government.”
Definition of fracking
The committee said it was “highly concerned” about plans to use the definition from the Infrastructure Act 2015 in the revised National Planning Practice Guidance. The report said:
“We call on the Government to amend the Infrastructure Act definition to ensure public confidence that every development which artificially fractures rock is subject to the appropriate permitting and regulatory regime.”
Daniel Carey-Dawes, Senior Infrastructure Campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said:
“This report is a major blow for the government’s plans to fast track fracking across England’s countryside. The report correctly highlights that local authorities are best placed to understand their local area and that the proposals would result in a significant loss of local decision making and exacerbate existing mistrust between communities and the fracking industry.
“The government must now heed these warnings and abandon plans to fast track fracking. Failure to do so risks leading to the industrialisation of our countryside, all for the benefit of an industry that has no environmental, economic or social licence.”
Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth campaigner, said:
“MPs are right to denounce government plans to make it easier for fracking companies to drill without planning permission and slash the involvement of local people.
“It’s absurd that the government wants to apply rules originally designed for harmless activities like putting up a garden shed to include drilling for oil and gas.
“Fracking is highly contentious and bad news for our climate and environment: at the very least local people deserve to have a say.
“The government should listen to MPs and throw out these proposals.”
The Local Government Association, which represents local councils, said:
“We are pleased that the Committee has listened to councils and backs our call for any decision to host fracking operations to be a local one. Fracking operations should not be allowed to bypass the locally democratic planning system through permitted development or national planning inspectors.
“This needs to be up to local communities to decide on.
“People living near fracking sites – who are most affected by them – have a right to be heard. Local planning procedure exists for a reason, to ensure a thorough and detailed consultation with those communities.
“Planners also protect local environments and ensure appropriate and affordable homes are delivered for our communities. That’s why ultimately, council planners should be able to set fees that reflect the needs of their local area.”
Ken Cronin, Chief Executive of the industry body, UK Onshore Oil & Gas, said:
“We do not support the Committee’s recommendations opposing Government proposals on permitted development rights and national planning.
“The report fails to address a main concern of both the industry and local communities, which is the fact that planning applications for even the simplest of wells now take up to 18 months to conclude and that many of the professional planning officers’ recommendations are ignored. This leaves communities with uncertainty and local taxpayers with a huge bill to foot, and is against the experience of the previous 10 years where most applications were decided in less than four months and against a statutory timescale of three months.
“On national planning, the Government’s recent Written Ministerial Statement reiterated its position that ‘shale gas development is of national importance’.
“However, the Committee has taken the view that shale gas sites should not be treated as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). With gas providing half of British electricity, over 80% of our heating and vital feedstocks to industry, we find it concerning that the Committee would seek restrict our opportunity for homegrown production to replace our rapidly increasing dependency on imported gas and oil.”
Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk and Malton and a member of the committee, welcomed the report’s conclusions:
“I am delighted that the Committee Chair, Clive Betts, agreed to my proposal to hold an inquiry as I felt it was important that Parliamentarians have a clear understanding of the potential impacts of shale gas exploration.
“North Yorkshire County Council, together with North York Moors National Park and City of York Councils have developed an excellent Minerals Plan that includes strong protections for the landscape. These include a maximum density of well-pads, clear prohibition of surface developments in AONB and the National Park and also buffer zones around these areas.
“It is Mineral Planning Authorities that have the knowledge of their areas needed to judge the impacts of fracking, not a Planning Inspector in Bristol.
“I am pleased that the Committee agreed that Mineral Planning Authorities are best placed to understand the local area and how shale gas development can best take place. I am concerned that these proposals could allow for a range of fracking related activities without a need for planning permission, if they are treated as permitted development.”
The Green Party MEP for south east England, Keith Taylor, said:
“I’m happy to see MPs have recognised the blindingly obvious; cutting local authorities out of the planning process in order to fast-track fracking is ruinous for both democracy and our planet. It’s vitally important that the Government heeds this latest warning. Sacrificing local democracy to pursue an evidence-free policy aimed at pleasing their friends in the oil and gas industry, was never a good idea.”
“The fact that Ministers believe the pursuit of climate-destructive unconventional oil and gas extraction is an excuse to ride roughshod over local residents and their representatives is frightening enough. But in places like Lancashire, it’s not just belief; it’s already happened. The Government is making a mockery of its commitment to localism.”
The report called for an online ‘one-stop shop’ for all fracking guidance and policy documents, to be hosted by a newly-created Shale Information and Coordination Service.
The current disparate guidance hinders understanding, transparency and engagement with fracking applications, the Committee said.
It also recommended combining the service with the Government’s planned planning brokerage system. This should be available to members of the public and organisations, as well as local authorities and the shale gas industry, the report added.
On climate change, the report said the Government must clarify how Mineral Planning Authorities should balance competing objectives to meet international commitments on greenhouse gas emissions with Government support for shale gas.
It also said the Government should assess the implications for existing fracking guidance of a report by Professor Peter Styles on fracking in former coal mining areas. It called for clarification on how scientific and technical developments, as well practical experience at fracking sites, were reviewed and, where appropriate, incorporated into existing guidance.
The report concluded that a single regulator was inappropriate for the shale gas industry.
“The regulatory roles and powers of the existing regulators should be maintained to protect the independence of the regulatory regime, avoid conflict of interests and ensure regulatory specialisms are maintained.”
There was also a call for more funding for mineral planning authorities dealing with fracking applications.