Both Conservative leadership contenders have said they’re in favour of fracking if it has local support – but so far neither have explained how this would be measured or proved.
Liz Truss was asked during last night’s hustings in Leeds how she would determine if local people wanted fracking.
“One of the ways that we gain local support is for people sharing the benefits of, for example, gas extraction.”
Pressed by the LBC presenter, Nick Ferrari, how she would know, Ms Truss replied:
“We’ve got these things called councils that assess local opinion. I was on a planning committee of a council, not the best experience I’ve had in my life, but local authorities, local MPs, we gauge local opinion that way.”
Rishi Sunak has confirmed he backs fracking where there is local support but he has not given any more detail.
DrillOrDrop asked both candidates today:
- how would local support for fracking be measured?
- which local people’s views would be counted?
- who would assess the level of local support for fracking?
So we don’t know whether they are thinking about public opinion surveys, referendums, public consultations, petitions, or the hunch of local politicians. Or perhaps, neither candidate has thought about this yet.
The Johnson government is currently considering whether to lift the moratorium on fracking in England based on a review of scientific developments.
Local opinion and planning
If the frontrunner, Liz Truss, wins the leadership election and does what she says she would do, there might need to be a change to planning law.
Currently, decisions about fracking sites are made on what are known as material planning considerations.
These include issues, such as noise or disturbance, loss of light or outlook, impact on landscape or protected areas, traffic and road safety, lighting, planning policies and previous decisions.
People are invited to express their views in a formal consultation.
The number of comments in support or opposition, even in the most controversial cases, are a fraction of the total population of an area and they may, or may not, be representative.
But local opinions alone are not supposed to sway decision-makers. Government policy states:
“local opposition or support is not, in itself, a ground for refusing or granting planning permission, unless it is founded upon valid material planning reasons.”
Public consultations are open to people from across the country, not just residents living close to a proposal. Some councils give details of where supporters or objectors live. But there is no published evidence that the views of people living outside an area are discounted just because they are not local.
There’s no information from the leadership candidates about how much consideration would be given to the level of support or opposition for a scheme, or whether some views would count more than others.
In rural areas, where fracking proposals are more likely, the number of people directly affected by impacts such as noise or light pollution could be relatively small. It’s not clear, whether the views of these residents alone would be considered.
Deliveries by large vehicles to a fracking site, however, could affect people living further away. Neither candidate has explained whether these residents would also get a say.
And some impacts of fracking could affect people in a wider area. In Lancashire, people living across the Fylde region reported damage from a small earthquake caused by fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in 2019. Should everyone in this area have a say too?
Climate change is a material consideration in planning decisions. The impact on greenhouse gas emissions of a shale gas site – and more importantly its product – would affect a much larger number of people.
Campaigners argue that the climate is no respecter of boundaries. So would everyone in England, or the UK, qualify for a view?
What do opinion polls say?
One of the recent surveys, a YouGov poll published in May 2022, found that 46% of people thought Britain should not restart fracking. 27% said it should. 26% said they didn’t know.
The shale gas industry lobbyist, UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG), said this poll also showed that 29% of people were in favour when asked about shale gas in their local area.
If local shale gas production meant a reduction in bills for people in the community, UKOOG said 59% were then in favour.
YouGov has not published data that supports UKOOG’s conclusions. We’ve asked UKOOG for details but the organisation has not replied.
The government’s most recent wave tracker survey, published in December 2021, before the Ukraine war, found 45% opposed fracking while 17% supported.
What about petitions?
A petition on the government website to end England’s moratorium on fracking has had 18,454 signatures since March 2022. This represents 0.034% of UK adults. If the petition gets 100,000 signatures by 21 August 2022 the issue could qualify for a parliamentary debate.
A petition started yesterday by Friends of the Earth calls on the next prime minister to keep the moratorium in place. We’ll follow the progress of this petition.
The new prime minister might argue that local opinion could be assumed from the level of election votes for the Conservatives in a local area.
This would, however, require a new election and a new Conservative manifesto.
At the last election in 2019, the Conservative Party said it would not support fracking unless the science showed categorically that the process could be done safely. Neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak have qualified their support for fracking with scientific evidence.
The significance of fracking at the next election may depend partly on the stand taken by other parties, most of whom promised in 2019 to ban fracking.
The anti-fracking network, Frack Free United, reported last night that 142 constituencies were covered by fracking licences. It said:
- 60 constituencies covered by a licence were marginal seats (less than 10,000 majority)
- 54 constituencies covered by a licence had an anti-fracking presence
- 18 constituencies covered by a licence were former” red wall seats”
Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde, told iNews it was unlikely that any community would be willing to allow fracking because of the damage it was capable of doing to properties.
“The manifesto says the moratorium is in place unless the science changes, but has it changed? No.
“The number of wells we would need to make up the shortfall in gas supplies in this country would be thousands and thousands, all over the country, including the south east of England. And even then it would take 10 years to generate that much gas.”
Offshore wind model or nationally-significant infrastructure?
The new prime minister could use the revised planning rules for onshore wind as a template for fracking decisions.
In June 2015, the government said local people must have “the final say” on onshore windfarms in their area.
The rules said councils could grant planning permission only if:
- The site was in an area identified as suitable as part of a local or neighbour plan
- “Following consultation, the planning impacts identified by affected local communities had been fully addressed and. therefore had their backing”
If these rules were applied to fracking sites, what would happen if companies appealed – as they have in five cases? How would a planning inspector or government minister give local people “the final say”.
And would the second rule make much difference to the planning process? Currently, the planning system should already address impacts identified by affected local people. But this does not necessarily block planning permission or mean that local people give a scheme their backing.
The shale gas industry appears to be pulling in the opposite direction. UKOOG called last month for shale gas developments to be defined as nationally-significant infrastructure.
This would take decisions away from local councils and give them to planning inspectors and ministers. Proposals would probably have to go through public inquiries and decisions would be likely to take longer than those made by councillors.