A campaign group is seeking to overturn council coronavirus arrangements which they say deny them the right to speak in person at a meeting to decide major plans to frack near Formby.
The Moss Alliance, which opposes a planning application by Aurora Energy Resources, is taking its complaint to the chief executive of Lancashire County Council.
The council has described Aurora’s proposal, which has received thousands of objections, as a major development.
It said the planning application may be decided at virtual online meetings of the development control committee in either August or September 2020.
But officials have suspended public participation at committee meetings because of the Covid 19 outbreak.
This means people will not be able to speak either in favour or against the application. Their presentations must, instead, be submitted to planning officers who will read them to committee members.
This is in marked contrast to a Lancashire County Council planning meeting in June 2015, when nearly 50 people gave presentations in one day against a similar application by Cuadrilla Resources for fracking at Preston New Road.
During the Covid-19 crisis, some English mineral planning authorities have delayed decisions on contested applications. Some smaller authorities, including West Lancashire Borough Council where the proposed fracking site is based, have allowed people to speak at meetings using a telephone link.
The Planning Inspectorate, which handles appeals against planning decision, has organised virtual public inquiries using video and phone.
The Aurora application is the first fracking proposal to come before councillors since the government introduced a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in November 2019. The government said it was withdrawing support for the process after earth tremors induced by Cuadrilla’s fracks at Preston New Road.
Last week, the business and energy minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the debate on fracking had “moved on”. Fracking was “not something that we’re looking to do”, he said, adding “for now, fracking is over”.
Maureen Mills, chair of The Moss Alliance, a network of anti-fracking groups in south west Lancashire and north Sefton, said today:
“That objections, or even support, cannot now be presented in person, albeit by telephone link, removes the personal element that is so important to input into public meetings.
“We think it inconceivable that a decision could be taken on such a major development (Lancashire County Council’s own words) while the government’s moratorium on fracking remains in place and support has been withdrawn.
“We believe that councillors on Lancashire County Council’s Development Control Committee should not be put in the position of having to take a decision on this major planning application during these unprecedented times.”
The debate over Aurora’s fracking plans goes back almost a year to 27 June 2020, when the company said it would be submitted a planning application to drill, fracture and test two shale gas wells on Altcar Moss, near the village of Great Altcar.
A public consultation attracted objections from 11 local councils, six local anti-fracking groups, environmental protection organisations and nearly 1,000 members of the public. More than 6,000 people have so far signed a petition against the development.
In October 2019, Lancashire County Council asked the company for more information on issues such as wellsite construction, the green belt, ecology, seismicity, highways, archaeology, climate change, noise and air and water quality.
50 pages of new material from Aurora were published on the application website in January 2020.
Aurora’s new material prompted renewed objections, including criticism from the council’s consultants, Jacobs, the government’s wildlife adviser, Natural England, and Sefton Council. Aurora sent another 60-page response last month. DrillOrDrop report
People have until Friday 3 July 2020 to comment on additional and amended information in the application.
Maureen Mills said:
“Campaigners feel that the latest response and additional information provided by Aurora is effectively a ‘brush off’, as they have still failed to address/satisfy many of the issues raised during the extended consultation process.
“The company and its agents have instead suggested that the many of the matters raised by Consultees and the council’s own advisers will be dealt with by other regulatory authorities, after the application is granted.”
DrillOrDrop invited Lancashire County Council to respond to The Moss Alliance’s concerns.