MPs committee says bid to speed up fracking is a "backward step"

Cuadrilla's drilling rig at Preston New Road
Cuadrilla's drilling rig at Preston New Road

Stripping local planning authorities of decision-making on fracking in their area would be “hugely harmful” to local democracy, MPs have warned.

The Government has proposed a move to deal with planning applications for fracking at a national level, under the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime, as part of efforts to get the industry up and running quicker.

But moving decisions on fracking planning applications to a national level is likely to worsen mistrust between communities and the industry, the parliamentary Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said.

It also warned against plans to give non-fracking shale exploration permitted development rights, commonly used in home extensions to allow some work such as at Roseacre Wood without planning permission.

After a detailed consultation, Lancashire County Council rejected Cuadrilla’s applications to frack at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood in 2015 but was overruled on the former by Government minister Sajid Javed.

A decision on the latter is due later this year following a re-opened planning inquiry at Blackpool Football Club in April.

Committee chairman Clive Betts said: “Taking decision-making powers away from local planning authorities would be a backward step.

"It would remove the important link between fracking applications and Local Plans and be hugely harmful to local democracy and the principles and spirit of localism.

“It is mineral planning authorities that have the knowledge of their areas needed to judge the impacts of fracking, not ministers sitting in Whitehall.”

And he warned: "Any move to alter this process also seriously risks worsening the often strained relationship between local residents and the fracking industry.

"The Government has failed to provide any justification as to why fracking is a special case and should be included in the regime in contrast to general mineral applications."

Efforts by the Government to help get fracking off the ground have proved controversial, with some planning decisions going against the industry, and protests by locals and campaigners who oppose the development of wells.

The process involves liquid pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release gas. Gas exploration firm Cuadrilla has drilled two horizontal wells at Preston New Road and is poised to frack these wells later this year.

The Government has said shale development provides economic opportunities for jobs and investment, and can play a "key role" in maintaining energy security.

The report by the committee said mineral planning authorities, usually county councils, are best placed to understand the local area and how fracking can best take place.

If the Government presses ahead with plans to include fracking in the national regime, it must urgently produce a national policy statement to make sure the cumulative impact of applications is automatically considered and every decision is consistent with local plans.

But opponents fear it can cause earthquakes, pollute water, lead to damaging development in the countryside and hit house prices, and is not compatible with targets to cut fossil fuel use to tackle climate change.

Tony Bosworth from Friends of the Earth said: “MPs are right to denounce government plans to make it easier for fracking companies to drill without planning permission and slash the involvement of local people.

“It’s absurd that the government wants to apply rules originally designed for harmless activities like putting up a garden shed to include drilling for oil and gas.

“Fracking is highly contentious and bad news for our climate and environment: at the very least local people deserve to have a say."

But the oil and gas industry said that delays in the planning process were too long and were holding up the new industry.

A spokesman for fracking industry body UKOOG said: “The Select Committee has produced a wide-ranging report, which has taken place alongside the Government’s own proposals for planning reform on shale gas development which seek to address the current disappointingly lengthy planning process.

"No one benefits from the uncertainty caused by continued planning delays and we support measures that facilitate timely decision-making.

There are a number of areas highlighted by the Committee report which the industry has some sympathy with, in part around the role of the new regulator, funding of local authorities and the need to have a forum where the general public can access relevant guidance.

"However, we do not support the Committee’s recommendations opposing Government proposals on permitted development rights and national planning.

"The report fails to address a main concern of both the industry and local communities, which is the fact that planning applications for even the simplest of wells now take up to 18 months to conclude and that many of the professional planning officer recommendations are ignored.

"This leaves communities with uncertainty and local taxpayers with a huge bill to foot, and is against the experience of the previous ten years where most applications were decided in less than four months and against a statutory timescale of three months.