Residents in the south Yorkshire village of Harthill have failed to overturn planning permission for an Ineos shale gas well near their homes.
They went to the High Court last week to argue that they had been treated unfairly at a public inquiry which decided the permission.
But in a ruling handed down this morning, a High Court judge dismissed their case and refused to quash the planning permission.
The consent for shale gas exploration at Harthill had been granted by a government-appointed planning inspector, Stephen Roscoe, in June 2018, following the inquiry two months earlier.
At a court hearing in Leeds last week, Harthill villager, Les Barlow, accused the inspector of breaching natural justice. He said Mr Roscoe had not given the community group, Harthill Against Fracking, an adequate opportunity to contribute to the inquiry.
The case focussed on Harthill Against Fracking’s request, made on the opening day of the inquiry, for an adjournment. Members of the group said they needed more time to consider new material submitted by Ineos on how large delivery lorries would be managed on narrow local roads.
The inspector refused the adjournment request but allocated time for questions on the proposals and allowed Harthill Against Fracking a week before it presented its case.
Mr Barlow, on behalf of Harthill Against Fracking, argued that the refusal to adjourn the inquiry prejudiced the group’s opportunity to challenge Ineos on the traffic plans. He asked the court to quash the approval of planning permission.
Mr Barlow’s barrister, Ashley Bowes, said the new transport material submitted by Ineos was “substantial and significant”. He said the two weeks that had been available to Harthill Against Fracking before the inquiry to consider it was “insufficient”.
“Mr Barlow and the Harthill Against Fracking (HAF) were denied an opportunity to seek expert advice on the new material, adduce further evidence to meet the new material and then test the company’s case, informed by expert opinion.
“That resulted in material prejudice.”
But this morning, the judge, Mrs Justice Andrews, said:
“I have concluded that the Inspector’s refusal to adjourn the Inquiry and the reasonable and proportionate measures he adopted instead to cater for the position of interested parties, including the Claimant [Mr Barlow], did not deprive the Claimant of a reasonable opportunity to challenge INEOS’s case and put his and HAF’s opposing case on the appeal.
“There was no procedural unfairness, and there was no material prejudice.
“This statutory challenge must therefore be dismissed.”
The judge said the inspector decided that the new Ineos traffic management scheme did not significantly change the underlying proposals for the shale gas scheme. He also made “a fair evaluation of the nature and extent of the changes”, she said.
She added that Harthill Against Fracking understood Ineos’s proposals
“sufficiently well to be able to articulate a detailed and intelligent response to them in the form of the amended position statement that they handed in on day 1 of the Inquiry.”
That statement was not amended after a site visit and there were no further complaints to the Inspector, she said.
Mrs Justice Andrews said the group had not been deprived of the opportunity to seek expert advice. It chose not to do so because, at the time, it had relied on Rotherham Borough Council to deal with this issue in the inquiry.
During the inquiry, a council expert, Ian Ferguson, dropped his opposition on some of the highway evidence. The judge said HAF’s stance came with a risk that the council might change its position.
“Procedural fairness did not require HAF to be given more time simply because matters took a turn that they did not expect.
“I consider it to be significant that at no stage during the Inquiry did Mr Barlow say to the Inspector that he or his action group wished to have the opportunity to instruct their own traffic expert in the light of Mr Ferguson’s change of position.”
The judge said there was no evidence of what other arguments or materials Ineos’s opponents would have put before the inspector if they had been given more time to consider the traffic plans.