An anti-fracking campaign group has lodged a formal complaint against the government over a public consultation on changing the planning rules for shale gas drilling.
Frack Free United said the consultation, which ended in October 2018, broke three of the government’s own guidelines.
The consultation centred on a government proposal to allow non-fracking shale gas exploration to be treated as permitted development. This would bypass the normal planning application process and was designed to speed-up shale gas projects.
The proposal was opposed by many Conservative MPs and councillors. The government was warned that it did not have the votes in the House of Commons to push it through. A petition with more than 300,000 signatures was presented to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The consultation said it was seeking opinions on the principle of applying permitted development. But Steve Mason, of Frack Free United, said it was “biased”, “fundamentally flawed” and “made a mockery of our right to express our views in a fair manner”.
He told DrillOrDrop:
“We felt we had to lodge a complaint. The framing of the questions and the terminology left a lot to be desired.
“We oppose fracking and this made a mockery of our right to express our views in a fair manner.
“We feel we managed to offer advice but to the average man in the street, it would have been quite easy for them to be led into a position of supporting Permitted Development proposals.
“I would encourage people to write to their MPs to lodge similar concerns, and ask they oppose government plans on fracking whenever possible.”
Government guidelines say consultations should:
- Be easy to understand and answer, using clear, concise plain English and avoiding acronyms
- Not ask questions about issues on which the government has a final view
- Give enough information to ensure that those consulted understand the issues and can give informed responses
In correspondence with the Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government, Frack Free United said:
“It is clear from the phrasing of most questions in the consultation that the government have already decided that they are in favour of the principle, as they do not provide any opportunity for people opposed to the principle to respond meaningfully to this question.”
The group added that a lack of explanation on one question limited the ability of people who did not work in the oil and gas industry to respond in an informed way.
Frack Free United criticised as “inappropriate” the use of the online tool, SurveyMonkey, to conduct the consultation because it failed to encourage full participation. The group also said design flaws in the survey may have discouraged some people from taking part. Participants did not receive confirmation that they had submitted a response, the group added.
The government defended the consultation, saying “all efforts were made to ensure that the document was as easy to understand as possible”.
It said the consultation had “received collective agreement from other government departments before publication”. It was open to everyone and “gave all the relevant information in the background chapter”, the government said.
In correspondence to Frack Free United, it added:
“We do not agree that the consultation had predetermined the outcome.
“We consider that the consultation was written in a fair and unbiased way which will enable an objective analysis.
“We … consider that no maladministration has taken place.”
Frack Free United described this response as “wholly unsatisfactory”, saying many of its points had not been dealt with.
It said the use of the phrase “section test” in the consultation was not defined in any of the supporting documents. It also described as “an egregious error” the omission of an opportunity for people to explain why they opposed the principle of applying permitted development for shale gas projects.
Frack Free United said it had taken its criticism to the next level in the government’s complaints procedure.
- DrillOrDrop will follow this case and post updates on developments.