Anti-frackers pack up their placards and plan to fight another day

Protestors outside County Hall

Protestors outside County Hall

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They travelled to Preston from all corners of Britain to be part of history.

Two hours later the cream of the anti-fracking movement were packing up their placards and trudging off home, their noble cause strangled by municipal red tape.

What should have been a momentous day in the nation’s battle over shale gas exploration turned into a damp squib, with both sides expressing frustration and anger in equal measure.

A controversial late move by drilling firm Cuadrilla to delay the planning process forced an adjournment for at least another eight weeks.

In the end all parties agreed it had been a complete waste of everyone’s time - and a not inconsiderable waste of everyone’s money.

They will all be back to fight another day. But quite when that is now depends on how swiftly Lancashire County Council can complete a new consultation process on changes to noise and traffic issues which forced the authority’s top planning man to oppose applications to frack at two sites between Preston and Blackpool.

With a minimum of eight weeks required for the development control committee to reconvene, that would take the decision to the end of March. But protestors are worried that further delays might extend that into April when a looming General Election might cause yet more hold-ups.

Committee members agreed yesterday’s adjournment was done “reluctantly” and “unavoidably.”

The authority’s legal advisor Ian Young said the new information submitted by Cuadrilla was considered to be of a “substantive nature” and therefore, according to planning regulations, had to go to public consultation.

“My unequivocal advice to the committee is that, in these circumstances, both applications must be deferred. Not to do so would, in my view, mean that the council would be acting unlawfully.

“If the committee were not to accept my advice then the applicant would have clear grounds to challenge a refusal to defer and a legal challenge would inevitably be successful, leading to both further delay and cost consequences for the council.”

Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan said: “I understand that everyone is frustrated, but so are we. People there were prepared to speak both for and against it and everyone wanted to get to an end point.

“But it doesn’t need to be a long delay in my view.

“We have supplied some important additional mitigations to the council that we believe will adress the very few planning issues that were raised.

“I detected a desire on behalf of the councillors to have this resolved with the next eight weeks. I fully share that and I believe that is entirely possible.

“There is frustration on all sides. People who are opposed are frustrated, but at the same time people who are for it are equally frustrated.

“Of course it (the delay) is costing Cuadrilla money, but I’m not going to say how much it is costing us on a daily basis.

“Like everyone else we would have liked to get a decision. We would like to start drilling and exploring for this gas. The county needs it and the country needs it.”

The 13 members of the committee were cheered as they lined up to express their regret at having to postpone what should have been a milestone planning issue.

Coun Marcus Johnstone said he had a heavy heart voting to adjourn the hearing and added: “I believe we have no alternative.”

Coun Paul Hayhurst said: “A lot of councillors are very unhappy about having to do this.” Coun Stephen Holgate said he was “downright angry.”

And as protestors in the council chamber voiced their frustration, Coun Kevin Ellard added: “I am very frustrated. The sooner we deal with this the better.”

Amongst the protestors outside County Hall was musician “Bez” of the band the Happy Mondays. He commented: “I feel like I have to stand and raise awareness. The future is not looking too bright for the people of Britain.”