The Mayor of Malton has started private legal proceedings against the government over its proposals to take decisions on shale gas away from local councillors.Paul Andrews, a member of Malton Town and Ryedale District Councils, is seeking to challenge a Written Ministerial Statement on fracking issued in May.
The statement, made jointly by the business and local government secretaries, introduced proposals that would bypass the planning application system and speed-up decisions on shale gas.
Mr Andrews said in a statement this evening:
“I am taking this legal action as a private individual as I consider it my duty to protect the interests of the communities I represent.
“Fracking will industrialise our beautiful countryside and destroy our rural economy and tourist businesses.
“Somebody has to stand up against the bullies in government and the greed of the oil and gas industry.
“This is about defending your property, your family’s health and your local democratic rights. Would you want full scale industrial fracking only 300m of your home?”
This is the second announcement in the past few days of action against government policy on fracking and shale gas.
On Friday (10 August 2018), DrillOrDrop reported that the campaign group, Talk Fracking, was taking the first steps in what could be a legal challenge to the section of the revised National Planning Policy Framework on onshore oil and gas.
“Unacceptable level of government control”
The Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) at the centre of Mr Andrews’ challenge proposed to classify non-fracking shale gas exploration as permitted development – the process usually used for small house extensions.
This would bypass the need to apply for planning permission.
For shale gas production, the statement proposed dealing with plans as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.
They would be decided by a planning inspector or government minister, rather than a local council.
Mr Andrews said:
“The Statement seeks to impose an unacceptable level of government control on regional planning authorities, and will significantly reduce the ability of democratically elected local councils to establish their own parameters for fracking in their area.
“I believe this is both undemocratic and illegal, and I am therefore seeking to challenge this Ministerial Statement in court through a Judicial Review.”
The government proposals for permitted development are opposed by 80% of Conservative councillors, according to a recent survey for Campaign for Protection of Rural England and Friends of the Earth.
65% of Conservative councillors believe local councillors should make decisions on shale production projects, the survey also found.
At the time of writing, there have been more than 214,000 signatures to two petitions against the proposals.
“Bypass local democracy”
“Under pressure from the oil and gas industry, the government has now abandoned their attempts to convince unwilling communities to accept fracking, and are now planning to bypass local democracy and impose fracking through central government decree.
“The Written Ministerial Statement is a key part of their strategy, and if left unchallenged will mean that local authorities will be unable to represent their communities or set limits to control the fracking industry in their area. I am simply not prepared to let that happen.”
Overriding local plans
Mr Andrews said the Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) was “a direct challenge” to restrictions on fracking included in the North Yorkshire Joint Minerals Plan.
This will set local policy for oil and gas developments until the 2030s. In April, a planning inspector provisionally approved proposals for a 500m buffer zone between fracking sites and homes or schools, despite industry threats of a legal challenge.
The inspector also approved a definition of fracking as any process where rocks were fractured under hydraulic pressure. This is a much wider definition than the one adopted by the government, which is based on volume of fracking fluid: at least 1,000m3 per fracking stage or 10,000m3 in total.
Mr Andrews said the plan sought to find a compromise between the interests of the oil and gas industry and the concerns of local residents, businesses, parish councils, farmers and the rural tourist industry.
But within a month, the WMS said local plans should “not set restrictions or thresholds across the plan area that limit shale gas development without proper justification”.
It also said:
“We expect Mineral Planning Authorities to recognise the fact that Parliament has set out in statute the relevant definitions of hydrocarbon, natural gas and associated hydraulic fracturing. also said planning authorities should recognise the government’s definition.”
Mr Andrews said:
“These modest restrictions in the Plan did not please the fracking industry, who want unrestricted permission to do as they please wherever they hold a Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence. This is because they require grids of drill pads evenly spaced all over the fracking area at intervals of one and a half to two miles in every direction, and think that the 500m buffer zone would “sterilise” their ability to frack.”
“I believe the Written Ministerial Statement was a desperate attempt by central government to override the modest restrictions on fracking included in The North Yorkshire Plan, and is likely to have been the result of frantic lobbying by the oil and gas industry in the days after the approval of The Plan.
“It appears that the carefully considered decisions by locally-elected councillors, who have spent years drawing up The Plan in consultation with local communities, count for nothing in the face of the ever-increasing demands of the oil and gas industry.”
“No democratic legitimacy”
Mr Andrews criticised ministers for failing to follow legal requirements on the WMS and failing to subject it to a public consultation.
“This Statement was issued unilaterally without public consultation at the whim of the government and its friends in the oil and gas industry, and has no democratic legitimacy whatsoever.
“The Statement has already been heavily criticised by the Communities and Government Select Committee, who condemned its publication only a few days before the Committee published its own report on planning guidance for fracking.”
“It is also a legal requirement that any directives that have environmental significance should first be subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, which did not happen in this case.
“I am therefore challenging this Ministerial Statement in a Judicial Review.”
“Serious blow to pro-fracking policy”
Mr Andrews has to lodge an application for judicial review with the High Court by 16 August, the deadline for beginning a legal action. If approved, the case would go before a judge, with barristers for both sides arguing their cases.
If the challenge succeeded, the Written Ministerial Statement would be withdrawn. Cllr Andrews said:
“The government will be forced to reconsider their approach to fracking and planning regulation in England. This would be a very serious blow to the government’s pro-fracking policy, and would strengthen local democracy by placing fracking planning decisions back in the hands of locally elected councils and their planning authorities.”