County Hall bosses today hit out at the Government after it sparked a furious backlash amid controversial plans to fast-track fracking.
Ministers said they could take over decision-making away from local councils on any planning application for fracking under new measures.
This stinks. Basically the Government will try and force fracking on us and are bending over backwards to let the industry into Lancashire by effectively letting the minister call in Cuadrilla’s appeals.Barbara Richardson
The Department For Energy and Climate Change issued a warning to councils that if they drag their feet then the decision will be taken out of their hands and that shale gas planning applications will be fast-tracked through a new, dedicated planning process.
But it sparked fury last night with anti-frackers saying the move “stinks” – insisting the Government was simply taking over planning decisions it did not like to simply force through the industry’s development. County Coun Jennifer Mein, leader of Lancashire County Council, said: “The shale gas industry is at a very early stage of development and planning applications should be thoroughly scrutinised by people who are elected to represent the communities which would be affected.
“That is what has happened so far in Lancashire, where members of the development control committee considered huge amounts of detail and listened to what people for and against proposals had to say, before making their decisions.
“Our committee’s decisions took some time because the applicant asked us to consider further information, which then had to be consulted upon, part way through the process, and because the applications were the first of their kind in the UK with a substantial level of technical detail to be considered.
“It is clear that the government wants to see this industry develop, however they need to do more to convince people the process is safe, and of the possible benefits. And I would be very concerned if they chose to take these decisions out of the hands of local representatives.”
The move comes just days after energy secretary Amber Rudd hinted that her department wanted to see shale gas applications speeded up.
The measures include identifying councils that repeatedly fail to determine oil and gas applications within the 16-week statutory timeframe, labelling them as “underperforming” with subsequent applications potentially decided by the Communities Secretary Greg Clark.
Any fracking applications will be considered to be “called-in” by the Communities Secretary to be determined by him, and planning call-ins and appeals involving shale applications will now be prioritised by the Planning Inspectorate to speed them up.
Work on revising permitted development rights for drilling boreholes for groundwater monitoring will also be taken forward.
The move is seen by anti-fracking campaigners as an effort to put pressure on the local democracy system to force through fracking.
It comes after Lancashire County Council earlier this year refused two applicatons by energy company Cuadrilla to test frack on the Fylde, at Roaseacre and at Little Plumpton, following a lengthy process which included a delay requested by applicant Cuadrilla itself so it could change its measures to counter noise levels and traffic impact.
Barbara Richardson, from the Roaseacre Awareness Group, said the Government was over-riding local democracy.
She said: “This stinks. Basically the Government will try and force fracking on us and are bending over backwards to let the industry into Lancashire by effectively letting the minister call in Cuadrilla’s appeals.
“It was not LCC’s fault this was delayed. It was Cuadrilla’s. This is undermining democracy and I am appalled and angered by what Amber Rudd is saying. I invite her to come here and speak to us face to face.”
Alan Tootill from the Preston New Road Action Group said: “It is clear the government is committed to impose fracking whatever the consequences.
“It is clear that whatever the talk about local decision-making there is only one answer acceptable to the Government – to permit fracking. We do not now believe any appeal to the Planning Inspectorate will get a fair hearing.
But supporters of the shale gas industry have welcomed the Government’s hard line.
North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce chief executive Babs Murphy said: “It is pleasing to see that this announcement incorporates the appeals process and we can only hope this means the flawed and inconsistent decision by Lancashire County Council earlier this year are swiftly over-turned.”
A Cuadrilla spokesman said: “Local authorities are expected to assess and determine planning applications of all types within a certain timeframe so this announcement is primarily about getting the existing planning system to work as it is intended. There is no good reason why an application for a shale gas exploration site should take three to four times longer than an application for a major housing development a supermarket or a large scale quarry”.
Rudd and Greg Clark said their plans would ensure local people have a strong say over the development of shale exploration in their area – but will ensure communities and the industry benefit from a swift process for developing safe and suitable new sites.