A year ago today, people in the south Yorkshire village of Woodsetts waited to hear whether the government would approve Ineos plans to drill for shale gas near their homes.
90 miles away, this scene was repeated in Cheshire where IGas was seeking permission to test its shale gas well at Ellesmere Port.
Both proposals had been discussed at public inquiries chaired by planning inspectors. But the communities’ secretary had exercised his right to make the final decision. The government set a deadline of 8 April 2020 for both announcements.
When the date arrived, there was no decision: just a short statement from the Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government:
“regrettably, the Secretary of State will not be in a position to publish a decision on the application today. I realise this will be disappointing news, and apologise for the delay in issuing a final decision on this application. I can assure you that we will endeavour to minimise the delay as much as possible.”
A year on, there has still been no decision, despite questions from local people, MPs, the shale gas industry and the media. The projects and communities at Woodsetts and Ellesmere Port remain in limbo.
Last week, DrillOrDrop asked the Ministry why there had been a year’s delay. A spokesperson said:
“These complex cases remain under consideration – decisions on both will be issued as soon as is practicable.”
People in Woodsetts and Ellesmere Port have told us about the stress of living with ongoing uncertainty. We asked the ministry for its response to them.
The ministry spokesperson said:
“The views of local communities were taken into account as part of the public inquiry process.
“As these are living planning matters we are unable to comment further.”
The delays appear to breach government policy to make planning decisions on shale gas “faster and fairer” for all those affected by new development. A written ministerial statement in May 2018 said: “no one benefits from the uncertainty caused by delay”.
Woodsetts waiting for 45 months
People in Woodsetts have been living with uncertainty since summer 2017.
The first news of shale gas plans in the village came when legal notices were posted in farmland alongside a much-loved footpath in the greenbelt.
The notices warned that Ineos had been granted a High Court injunction against trespass and specified forms of protest on land it proposed to use for shale gas exploration. Breaching the injunction could result in a finding of contempt of court, for which the penalty could be prison, fines or seizure of assets.
In 2018, Rotherham Borough Council twice refused planning permission for drilling and testing a borehole at Woodsetts. Ineos appealed and the public inquiry ran for six days in June 2019. More than 30 people gave evidence to the inquiry.
A week after the inquiry closed, the communities’ secretary announced he would recover both the Woodsetts and Ellesmere Port appeals and make the final decisions.
Climate and planning policies extend Ellesmere Port delay
In Ellesmere Port, shale gas planning history dates back more than a decade.
The site at Portside North, near the Mersey estuary, received permission for two boreholes in 2010. One well was drilled in 2014. In July 2017, IGas gave notice that it would apply for consent to test it.
Cheshire West and Chester Council refused planning permission in January 2018. IGas appealed and the public inquiry began a year later. The hearing lasted 12 days, spread over nearly two months. More than 40 people gave evidence.
The closure of the inquiry was extended in March 2019 for a further 14 days when the High Court ruled that national planning policy on the benefits of shale gas was unlawful.
There was another delay in June 2019 to allow the inspector to take into account a recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change that the UK should phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Moratorium and lock-down
Other issues may have complicated both decisions – though may not explain the delays.
In November 2019, the government imposed a moratorium on fracking for shale gas in England. This was prompted by fracking-induced earthquakes at Cuadrilla’s shale gas site at Preston New Road near Blackpool. It remains in force.
Six months ago, Kwasi Kwarteng, the then energy minister (now business secretary), told parliament the government had no plans to review the moratorium. He said two Conservative MPs who had campaigned against fracking in their constituencies should accept victory. “There will be no fracking for the foreseeable future”, Mr Kwarteng said.
A fortnight before the 8 April 2020 deadline, the UK went into its first Covid-19 lockdown. Despite this, the communities’ secretary has announced decisions on 25 other recovered appeals in the past 12 months.
“Decision needed to give closure”
DrillOrDrop has spoken to people living near the Woodsetts and Ellesmere Port sites and their public representatives. We also asked Ineos and IGas to comment on the delays.
The reactions included:
- Decisions are needed to end uncertainty
- Shale gas and specifically fracking is becoming less viable
- Fracking is incompatible with UK climate obligations
- Government failure to ban fracking leaves the door open to shale gas development
- The applications remain on ice until they are dismissed
- The government has much trust to rebuild in fracking communities
“Fracking less and less viable”
Alexander Stafford, Conservative MP for Rother Valley, which includes Woodsetts
“Following my meeting with Ineos this year they made it clear that the fracking moratorium was working and had stopped all development. Nevertheless, we need a decision as soon as possible to give final closure to the residents of Woodsetts but as we know, with everyday that passes, fracking in the UK becomes less and less viable.”
“Our community cannot rest peacefully”
Richard Scholey, of the campaign group Woodsetts Against Fracking (WAF)
“It’s fair to say that despite being given assurances from our MP, Alexander Stafford, that we should accept victory as asserted by the Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, it’s very difficult to do so in the absence of a final decision refusing the development permission.
“I think we all understand that although the wider landscape has changed in respect of fossil fuels, the Government is unlikely to declare a ban on fracking and this leaves the door open for Ineos to move at any time in the future.
“We recently heard news of a shortage of raw products for plastic manufacture and there is a nascent hydrogen industry that could well seek the line of lowest cost by pursuing blue hydrogen. These and other factors in the woefully undefined course to a carbon neutral economy could well be used as arguments by Ineos and other prospective frackers, to apply pressure and ‘find’ the evidence that the government requires to show that fracking can be done safely.
“Because of these uncertainties our community cannot yet rest peacefully and WAF has retained its structures and finances in readiness to mobilise once again should the need arise.
“Woodsetts is still a live application”
Woodsetts campaigner, Matthew Wilkinson
“When you walk around the village of Woodsetts today, you will see a pretty little village set in a semi rural location, with well-kept flower beds, colourful hanging baskets and an extremely strong sense of community.
“You will also still see anti fracking banners neatly placed by the sides of our streets and posters in the majority of peoples house windows.
“At one point in the campaign over 80% of all households had a poster up opposing Ineos which was an incredible achievement. As an even greater reminder, the planning application for the site is still tied to many lampposts around the village, now some years’ old and looking tired, worn out, tatty and historic.
“Covid lockdown has meant that a mass of walkers and dog walkers have come out daily and used the routes around the field more so than ever.
“’Has there been any update yet?’ is a common question heard as people stand two metres apart and chat. It’s fair to say the people of Woodsetts are cautious about the moratorium and do not feel they have closure yet.
“Due to the enormous amount of evidence from earthquakes produced at Preston New Road, the health and safety failures, climate change data, the failure to regulate safely and complete lack of conviction that fracking is a viable option in the UK, the government has had no choice but to issue the moratorium. The initial government support for fracking has proven ill founded.
“The moratorium has been a breath of fresh air to campaigners that have been putting in enormous amounts of hours at the cost to their family time.
“However, the moratorium does not stop exploratory drilling. There are still real inconsistencies and mixed messages coming from the government. Fracking has damaged the government and become a dirty unpopular word.
“So why have they not dismissed this application when all the evidence suggests they should? The hard facts are that this is still a live application and until it is dismissed it looks like it is ‘sat on ice’, waiting for another chance under a new brand name or PR push.
“The government have a lot of trust to rebuild with communities affected by their push for fracking in recent years and the true starting point to rebuild that trust will be when they dismiss applications.”
- DrillOrDrop invited Rotherham Council and Ineos to comment on delays to the Woodsetts application. This article will update with any responses.
“Government not interested in ending uncertainty”
Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port
“We wrote to the Minister two months ago asking for an update and haven’t had the courtesy of a response so far. It seems that they are not at all interested in bringing the uncertainty to an end.”
“Fracking is incompatible with climate obligations”
Cllr Matt Bryan, Cheshire West and Chester’s cabinet member for housing, planning and climate emergency and an environmental campaigner
“The world has moved on a lot since the fracking industry tried to get a foothold in Cheshire.
“Local authorities have declared climate emergencies and implemented their climate plans. With COP26 [the UN climate conference in Glasgow] coming up in November, the eyes of the world are on the UK.
“Fracking is incompatible with our national and international obligations. It would be a real testament to the government if it upheld the council’s decision. There does not seem to be much appetite from big business for fracked gas, either from domestic or international sources.
“Kwasi Kwarteng told anti-fracking MPs they should accept victory. That needs to be reflected in the government’s decision. A lot of people put their lives on hold and worked very hard to oppose the Ellesmere Port application, including the late campaigner, Colin Watson.”
Cheshire West and Chester Council
“The council’s position is that we rejected the planning application and the responsibility for the decision is with the Secretary of State.”
“Decision still awaited”
IGas annual accounts published yesterday
“Our application to conduct a well test at our existing Ellesmere Port well, originally drilled in November 2014, was submitted on 21 July 2017. Following the Planning Committee’s refusal against Officer recommendation in January 2018, a 12-day Planning Appeal was held between 15 January 2019 and 6 March 2019. The Secretary of State recovered the appeal on 27 June 2019. Some 21 months later and 44 months after the initial application, a decision is still awaited, despite the Written Ministerial Statement in May 2018 committing to a rapid turnaround in decisions.
“Continuing uncertainty is not good for local economy”
Dave Plunkett, expert witness on sustainable development at 2019 IGas inquiry
“Here in Ellesmere Port and North Cheshire, we all hope that common sense on fracking prevails, especially in 2021 the year we host COP26.
“But since it was only a “moratorium” there is a continuing sense of uncertainty on fracking until a real decision is announced, which is not good for the local economy.”
“Meanwhile other local developments are just as worrying as fracking, especially in terms of their potential for emissions, pollution, and being unsustainable.
“Councils in the north west have declared a climate emergency, but still accept the “greenwash” proposed from the old alliances with industry, research, and education. Enterprise Partnerships and the Northern Powerhouse are dominated by large local companies.
“Our concerns are that in the absence of decisions on fracking and the IGAS Inquiry, we perpetuate these existing clusters of North Cheshire, with their attitude to emissions and waste.
“What we would really like to see here for a sound economic future are for councils to promote, licence and support real green development and jobs in tidal energy, retrofitting installation and domestic heat pumps. Oven ready !!
“We should be creating these simpler “Net Zero” jobs, but instead we have research on Carbon Capture or SMRs. We remain transfixed by extravagant “high tech” and are consistently pressured to support existing industries and jobs.
“We need a final decision on fracking, and that will build the green, resilient and sustainable investments we need in North Cheshire. But, by default, we cannot be a toxic or nuclear waste dump.”
8 April 2021 One year anniversary of scheduled decision date
23 April 2020 IGas demands answers on Ellesmere Port decision
8 April 2020 Scheduled decision date on Ellesmere Port and Woodsetts appeals
8 July 2019 Deadlines set for reports on Ellesmere Port and Woodsetts appeals (13 January 2020 for Woodsetts and 23 January 2020 for Ellesmere Port)
18 June 2019 Ellesmere Port inquiry decision delayed over climate change report (Net Zero report issued in May 2019)
11 June 2019-20 June 2019 Woodsetts inquiry. Link – 6 days
6 March 2019 What was due to be the final day of Ellesmere Port inquiry – but inquiry kept open for 14 days following High Court ruling that national planning policy on the benefits of shale gas was unlawful.
15 January 2019 Opening of Ellesmere Port inquiry. Continues for the weeks: 15-18 January 2019, 22-24 January 2019, 26-28 February 2019, 5-6 March 2019 – 12 days
7 September 2018 Rotherham councillors refuse Ineos shale gas plans at Woodsetts for second time (5 in favour 7 against)
8 March 2018 Rotherham councillors vote unanimously against Ineos plans for Woodsetts (planners recommend refusal)
17 January 2018 Planners back IGas test proposals for Ellesmere Port gas well
3 August 2017 Ineos announces location of shale gas site at Woodsetts