By Eve Mitchell
Well, ok, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but planning just took centre stage in the fight against fracking in the UK, so we need to sit up and do something about it.
I normally talk about food (cloning and GM crops and such), but I live in the UK, and I’m worried about fracking. Just when the rest of Europe is figuring out that it doesn’t work economically, the UK charges full steam ahead. Why we are risking our countryside, our farming (with its billions in food exports) and who knows what else on such a bad deal I don’t know.
Yet in August the UK Government announced two changes to the planning process that could lock-in a fracking future:
- If you apply for a fracking project in the UK, the government now reserves the right to take the decision instead of the local community. This is supposed to deliver certainty while preventing undue delay in decisions.
- If any applications are rejected, the government reserves the right to decide in the appeal.
Since the Prime Minister has been crystal clear he is going “all out for shale“, it doesn’t take much imagination to see what those decisions are likely to be. The Government doesn’t deny Councils have a right to have a say about fracking in their community; apparently they just have to come up with the “right” answer.
This is all happening because in places like In Wisborough Green and Belcoo companies failed to get permission to frack. Rejecting a planning application to frack Preston, the Council even formally voted to “do all in its power to oppose any attempt” to frack, including opposing applications outside Preston that would “have implications” for locals. Pretty strong stuff, and it’s getting in the government’s way, so the goalposts have been moved.
Few seem to have noticed that the previous government, also lead by Mr Cameron, announced in January it had “simplified” the planning system, saying it wanted “to see planning decisions taken at the lowest level possible“. Local people should be in the lead with “the freedom to make decisions in the best interests of their area…that achieve socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development”. These seem like reasonable goals, but fracking now works outside the rules.
The idea of a central decision isn’t entirely new. It is true there is special policy for projects of national significance (like major transport schemes), so the government has these powers to “call in” decisions already. However in 2012 Councils were told to prepare detailed planning guidance that includes dealing with applications for “unconventional hydrocarbons“, so fracking was clearly a Council responsibility then. Now any plans they made could be torn up. Councils were also told their decisions must ensure that there are “no unacceptable adverse impacts on the natural and historic environment, human health”, including “cumulative effects” from multiple sites. Talk about caught between shale and a hard place. No wonder it takes some of them a while to deal with the applications (and then reject them).
Wisborough Green (population 2,477 in 2001 census) and Belcoo (population 486 in 2001) aren’t very big places, and a fracking installation is a huge thing, so if it takes the local people longer than the statutory 16 weeks to come up with their answer, shouldn’t they take the time to get it right? One legal expert said, “Sixteen weeks is tight, particularly for cash- and resource-poor authorities.” Mr Cameron is going “all out” for austerity, too, and it’s hitting hard.
Now our communities are under threat that if we “delay” or reject any fracking application, the government will step in. I wondered where this idea came from until I saw that as far back as July 2014 the company refused permission to frack Wisborough Green was already threatening that their application “would stand up to further scrutiny by the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State in the event of an appeal”. Sounds so familiar. Councillors have to be able to demonstrate they make their decisions on planning applications “with an open mind“. It is unclear if this will also apply to fracking decisions taken by the government.
So the march to try to frack the UK is on. The government says communities hosting shale gas developments should take a share of the money, but we’ll have to wait and see if the new sovereign wealth fund it proposes will even compensate for losses, like falling house prices.
We hear a lot about transparency. We want accountability, too.
It all boils down to one question:
Mr Cameron, Will you force fracking onto unwilling communities?