The communities secretary, Michael Gove, has blocked two shale gas schemes in south Yorkshire and Cheshire. But ministers have given the go-ahead for gas drilling in Surrey.
The three rulings, released this afternoon, follow appeals and public inquiries:
- Woodsetts, south Yorkshire – appeal by Ineos Upstream refused
- Ellesmere Port, Cheshire – appeal by IGas refused
- Loxley, near Dunsfold, Surrey – appeal by UK Oil & Gas allowed and permission granted
In each case, ministers recovered the appeals and made the final decision, rather than the inquiry inspector . The Loxley scheme was decided by the housing minister, Stuart Andrew, after Michael Gove had recused himself because his constituency is nearby.
Local communities have waited for more than two years for the decisions on the Woodsetts and Ellesmere Port inquiries. The decision at Loxley had been expected today.
The Woodsetts decision went against the recommendation of the inspector. The other two decisions were inline with the inspectors’ advice.
Ineos Upstream had appealed against the refusal of planning permission by Rotherham Borough Council for a shale gas exploration site near an area of retirement bungalows on the edge of Woodsetts.
The company had sought to drill and test for shale gas at land off Dinnington Road.
The inquiry inspector, Katie Peerless, had recommended the appeal be allowed. But Mr Gove disagreed and refused planning permission.
The decision appears to have centred on the impact of a 3m high acoustic barrier, announced by Ineos just before the start of the inquiry.
Mr Gove said the barrier would make acceptable the level of noise from the site and access road.
But he said the barrier was inappropriate development in the green belt and did not comply with the local development plan.
There were no very special circumstances that would outweigh the harm to the green belt, he said. The scheme did not meet the criteria for Rotherham’s policy on exploration of hydrocarbons, he added.
He also disagreed with the inspector on the level of national policy support for the proposal. The inspector had given it significant weight – but Mr Gove said it carried only moderate weight.
The local opposition group, Woodsetts Against Fracking (WAF), said this afternoon:
“The members of WAF are absolutely ecstatic that the SoS [secretary of state] has seen fit to refuse this application by Ineos. It is a clear indication that fracking has no future in England or the UK as a whole.
“It is particularly significant that Michael Gove has overturned the original decision of the planning inspector, who had recommended the plan for approval. In doing so, he has indicated that weight must be given to climate change and to the fracking moratorium, even though this application was for an exploratory well only. Furthermore, he reinforces the need to protect against the impact of development in the green belt. These are all benchmarks for the future.
“The community of Woodsetts always maintained, not only that this was inappropriate development in our small rural setting, but that it would open the door to a highly damaging fracking industry with potentially ruinous consequences for ecology and climate change on a much wider scale. Thankfully we have been listened to.
“It has been a long and difficult road to get to this point, and it has often felt like an unequal battle against Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos, one of the giants of the petrochemical industry. It shows just what can be achieved when a community comes together to make a stand; something that will become increasingly necessary if we are to get politicians and governments to take meaningful action to safeguard our countryside and take action on climate change.
“This is a victory in which so many deserve recognition; the members of WAF, the wider community of Woodsetts, our neighbours in Harthill and Marsh Lane who had already undertaken their own fight with Ineos, CPRE, the many anti-fracking groups around country who supported us, the experts who gave their time to gather and present evidence at the inquiry on our behalf, and the legal team who pulled it all together into a cogent and coherent argument.”
The MP for Rother Valley, Alexander Stafford, said:
“I am delighted that the Government has stood up for the people of Rother Valley on yet another critically important issue for our area, and I am extremely pleased that the Secretary of State has overturned the planning inspector’s deeply concerning verdict. I have been lobbying tirelessly behind the scenes to have the Secretary of State step in, and I am pleased that my calls have been answered with decisive, positive action.
“No one is a bigger advocate for cleaner energy than me, but fracking is not, and has never been, the answer. It is not wanted here in Rother Valley, and this Conservative Government has yet again listened to us and represented us robustly.
“I hope residents in Woodsetts rejoice in this momentous victory that we have achieved together.”
Ineos has six weeks in which to appeal against the decision.
Woodsetts was the last of the company’s three proposed shale gas sites in the region to be decided. The other two, at Bramleymoor Lane, Derbyshire, and Common Road, Harthill, were approved after appeals but both permissions expired in 2021 with no work carried out.
DrillOrDrop has invited the company to comment.
IGas had appealed against the decision by Cheshire West and Chester Council to refuse planning permission for testing an existing well at Portside North in Ellesmere Port.
In today’s report, Michael Gove, agreed with the inquiry inspector, Brian Cook, that the appeal and planning permission be refused.
The inquiry, which had been spread over nearly three months in 2019, was the first onshore oil or gas appeal to centre on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr Gove agreed that the scheme would release unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions of 3.3-21.3 kt CO2 equivalent and that this weighed significantly against it.
He said the emissions put it in conflict with paragraph 152 of the National Planning Policy Framework, which requires the planning system to “shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”.
Mr Gove said “an unspecified but not insignificant number of individuals will experience stress and anxiety” as a result of the scheme and moderate weight should be given to this in the decision.
Only limited weight should be given to short-term economic benefits of the scheme, he said. He also said reduced consideration should be given to written ministerial statements (WMS) from 2015 and 2018 in support of shale gas and limited weight to the WMS on the fracking moratorium.
The report concluded:
“Overall the Secretary of State considers that the material considerations in this case indicate a decision which is not in line with the development plan – i.e. a refusal of permission.”
An opponent of the Ellesmere Port proposal, Cllr Matt Bryan, said:
“It is refreshing that the government has come up with the right decision on shale gas exploration. This is in no small measure because of the work of Collin Watson and campaigners from Frack Free Dee and Frack Free Upton, who put ours of work in.
“But it is disappointing that there has been approval for further exploration for gas at Dunsfold.”
Peter Benson, member of the Frack Free Dee Coalition and joint co-ordinator of Chester & District Friends of the Earth, said:
“This is a long overdue acceptance by the Government of the reality of Climate Change and the need to reduce our use of fossil fuels – not develop any new sources.
2Our late friend Colin Watson did an amazing job putting together the incontrovertible case about the insane volume of Greenhouse Gases that would have been produced had this gone ahead. We owe a tremendous debt to him and to our fantastic Barrister, Estelle Dehon of Cornerstone Barristers and the entire team that supported them.
“is also very sad that one of the founders of Frack Free Dee – Lucy Mackie – died recently without seeing this brilliant result. It is one of the greatest long-term wins from her and her husband James’ years of campaigning.
“All anti-fracking campaigners and everyone who cares about the future of our planet should be celebrating this landmark result.”
IGas has six weeks in which to appeal against the decision.
DrillOrDrop has invited the company to comment.
Mr Andrew followed the recommendation of the inspector, Mike Robins, to allow the appeal and grant planning permission for vertical and horizontal gas exploration wells.
The inquiry, held online in July and August 2021, had centred on the impacts of the scheme on the nearby Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), climate change and local roads and businesses.
Today’s 156-page report said there would be a “significant level of landscape and visual impacts from the proposal” on the surrounding landscape and it would “degrade the quality of the setting of the AONB”.
But Mr Andrew said the effects would be short term and there would be only limited effects on the AONB itself.
He said UKOG had not demonstrated that the site had been selected to minimise adverse environmental impacts and so it conflicted with local policy.
He said said said noise from the site would not affect some nearby homes and businesses. But he said moderate weight should be given to the impact on the wedding venue at nearby High Billingshurst Farm.
On traffic, Mr Andrew concluded there would not be “any significant adverse impacts on highway safety or the effective operation of the highway network”.
He said exploration was a necessary precursor to extraction and great weight should be given to the benefits of gas exploration and appraisal. He said limited weight should be given to the benefits of local jobs and spending.
He dismissed the impact of the scheme on the nearby Dunsfold Park housing development.
The permission comes with 32 planning conditions. They cover issues such as the duration of the permission (three years), hours of operation, traffic management, noise and vibration, lighting, ecology and restoration.
UKOG chief executive Steve Sanderson said this afternoon:
“We welcome this decision and its backing for Loxley’s gas as a secure, sustainable energy source with a far lower pre-combustion carbon footprint than imports. Backing UK domestic gas makes strategic, economic and environmental good sense. We look forward to moving the Loxley project forwards and to working constructively with the local community.”
James Knapp, of the regional campaign organisation, Weald Action Group, said:
“We are deeply disappointed by today’s Government decision to give the go ahead for UK Oil & Gas to drill for fossil fuels in Dunsfold. The application was twice rejected by Surrey County Council and was also opposed by local councils.
“Even if the site is proven commercially viable it will take years for new gas production to come on stream so it will do nothing to alleviate the current energy price crisis. Indeed, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change has stated that ‘Any increase in UK extraction of oil and gas would have, at most, a marginal effect on the prices faced by UK consumers in the future‘.
“The best way to protect consumers against rising energy prices is to rapidly increase renewable electricity generation, invest in energy storage and drastically improve the energy efficiency of our homes. Continued investment in fossil fuels will not only perpetuate our dependence upon them, continuing our exposure to uncertain and fluctuating global oil and gas prices; but, in the absence of a global cap on extraction, will contribute to the climate emergency already affecting millions of people around the world.
“With the commitments made to tackle climate change at COP26 still ringing in their ears it is unbelievable that the Government has allowed this appeal.”
The campaign group, Protect Dunsfold, which opposed the scheme said:
“Clearly this is a disappointing decision taken in response to a short term emergency. Long before UKOG manage to drill and prove any commercially viable oil exists at Loxley the war in Ukraine will be over and our energy supply will have stabilised.
“The decision of the Secretary of State (SOS) will not alter the physical distance needed for the drilling rigs and their support vehicles to access the site without impinging on common land; UKOG’s own application demonstrates this clearly.
“Such access would require permission from Waverley Borough Council, they have confirmed that permission will not be granted. The SOS cannot overrule that requirement, so his decision is somewhat unsound. Our local Conservative MP for South West Surrey, Jeremy Hunt, said in January 2022 that it was ”absolutely extraordinary after COP26 that we are even thinking about drilling for oil and gas in this area” when he joined with local people to demonstrate the problems with access.
“Protect Dunsfold is strongly opposed to this application by UKOG both on local environment grounds, because of the impact of the huge lorries and HGVs on our roads and on local businesses, but also because with the very real climate emergency we need to focus on sustainable and ecologically appropriate ways to generate energy. “
Two people who live nearest to the site also expressed their disappointment. Tom Gordon, of High Billingshurst Farm, and Ashley Herman, of Thatched House Farm, said:
“This decision ignores the wishes of local people, the Parish, Borough and County Councils. Jeremy Hunt MP has stated that ‘it is absolutely extraordinary, after COP 26 in Glasgow, that we are even thinking about drilling for oil and gas in this area’.
“UKOG was twice refused planning consent for this highly speculative scheme which, even if it finds anything, is unlikely to be commercially viable.
“Even the Planning Inspector concedes that “if the impacts I have found regarding landscape character, visual effects and tranquillity, were permanent or of medium to long-term duration, then this proposal would clearly conflict with the policy aims and objectives of the mineral planning authority and the AONB…However, the weight I give to this is tempered by the short-term nature of the proposals””
“As immediate neighbours of the well site, three-years cannot reasonably be considered short-term. We are distressed and angered that our established rural enterprises, employing many local people and which rely upon the tranquillity of their setting, will be severely affected, if not destroyed, by the hydrocarbon industrial activities taking place so close to our livelihoods and our homes.”
Another opposition group, Waverley Friends of the Earth, said:
“We are appalled by today’s decision by the Minister of State for Housing to give the go ahead for fossil fuel drilling in Dunsfold. It is absolutely the wrong decision. This scheme will do nothing to alleviate current high energy prices linked to the oil and gas market, and the climate crisis makes it imperative that we get out of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. We should be focusing on reducing energy consumption and investing massively in renewables. Giving this development the green light is just another example of the UK Government reneging on the climate commitments they made at COP26”.
Updated 8/6/22 to clarify that Michael Gove recused himself from the decision on the Loxley/Dunsfold decision