“Local democracy’s Black Friday”
The government was accused this morning of subverting democracy and reneging on localism with the announcement that it would make the final decision on Cuadrilla’s plans to frack at two sites near Blackpool.
Barbara Richardson, an anti-fracking campaigner from Lancashire, asked:
“Why should Westminster be allowed to decide what happens here in the North? They talk about devolving powers to the North yet this is in direct contradiction.”
Claire Stephenson, another local opponent of Cuadrilla’s plans, said:
“This flies in the face of the hypocritical government’s stated commitment to localism and the devolution of local decisions to where they should rest: in local hands.”
The announcement that Greg Clark, the communities and local government secretary, would rule on the proposals certainly appears at odds with a speech he made less than six months ago.
Addressing the Local Government Association annual conference he offered councils what he described as “the ability, in difficult times, to take control of your fate”. He said he was creating:
“The opportunity to take decisions in your town halls on matters – from transport to skills, from health to welfare – that over a hundred years have been taken away from you and put in the hands of people hundreds of miles away with a fraction of your local experience.”
“The ability of the people in this hall is beyond doubt. Your superior knowledge of local needs beyond argument. It’s your community. Your future. So take power now.”
The timing of the speech – on 2nd July 2015 - is curious.
Earlier that week, councillors on Lancashire County Council’s development control committee had refused Cuadrilla’s planning application to frack up to four shale gas wells at Preston New Road, near Claire Stephenson’s home.
And the week before, they also turned down a similar application for Roseacre Wood, close to where Barbara Richardson lives.
Had the applications been approved they would have led to the first high volume hydraulic fracturing in the UK since 2011. That was when fracking at another site in Lancashire caused two small earthquakes.
There were more than 33,000 objections to Cuadrilla’s proposals. About 80 people made presentations opposing the applications during four days of hearings in Preston.
Anti-fracking campaigners described the refusals as “a victory for democracy and people”.
But they knew their campaign wasn’t over. And very soon, the tide appeared to turn against them.
Within days, Lord Lawson, a supporter of shale gas, told the BBC’s Daily Politics programme:
“The government has got to make sure that the planning system does not delay things interminably”.
On 23rd July, Cuadrilla announced it was appealing against the two refusals of permission to frack. It also said it would challenge the rejection of plans for a seismic monitoring scheme at Preston New Road and the conditions attached to the permission for a similar scheme around Roseacre Wood.
Fifty days after the Roseacre Wood refusal, Mr Clark announced he would consider making the final decision on shale gas applications and appeals. On the same day, the energy secretary, Amber Rudd, said the government was backing shale gas.
So few in the anti-fracking movement were very surprised when Mr Clark’s department wrote to Lancashire County Council and Cuadrilla to let them know that the Secretary of State would rule on fracking appeals.
The letter explained
“The reason for this direction is because the drilling appeals involve proposals for exploring and developing shale gas which amount to proposals for development of major importance having more than local significance and proposals which raise important or novel issues of development control, and/or legal difficulties.”
But the explanation didn’t make the facts any more palatable for fracking’s opponents.
Claire Stephenson, of Preston New Road Group, responded:
"It is a very “Black Friday” when local democracy has to be sacrificed in order to try to ensure planning outcomes under the euphemism of ‘national interest.”
Barbara Richardson, of Roseacre Awareness Group, said:
"These applications have been rejected at every level; by the residents, by the Parish Council, by the Borough Council and by the County Council. Even our Conservative MP, Mark Menzies, has stated publically that the decision should be left to local politicians."
“This is a matter that should be decided by those elected to represent us locally, who fully understand the issues and will look after our interests and not by politicians in Westminster.”
Donna Hume, of Friends of the Earth, said:
“If Cuadrilla is given permission to frack in Lancashire, it will be against the wishes of its residents, and its council, both of which have made their views against this risky process very clear.”
Greenpeace’s energy campaigner, Hannah Martin, said:
“The same minister who told local councils they should be ‘masters of their own destiny’ could now overthrow one of the most important and difficult decisions Lancashire councillors have ever made.”
The Conservative MP for Fylde, Mark Menzies, has not commented so far. In January, he wrote on his website:
“I have made it very clear in the House of Commons that under no circumstances should anyone seek to overturn the wishes of local people at a national level.”
No-one was answering the phone at his offices in Fylde or Westminster today and he didn’t respond to our invitation to comment.
• Mr Menzies' office replied on 2nd December with this statement:
“The fact that this major planning application has been called in by the Secretary of State is a well-established process for such important developments.
“While I am sure there will be claims that this is some kind of Government conspiracy, it is actually more democratic in that the decision will be taken by an elected representative of the UK Government, rather than an unelected civil servant with no democratic oversight.
“I know in the past there have been major planning appeals, such as the Queensway development in St Annes and the travellers’ site application in Newton, where residents have successfully campaigned for the Secretary of State to call in decisions to ensure the proper level of oversight.
“The process is well-established in that the full public inquiry will still be carried out by the inspector, a report and recommendation made before a final decision by the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, meaning there will be that additional level of oversight on these crucially important matters.
“I will be speaking to the Secretary of State about these applications and will impress upon him my belief that the decision made by the local council should be adhered to.”
A 12-day public inquiry on the appeals, due to begin on 9th February in Blackpool, is expected to go ahead as planned. But the inspector, instead of coming to a decision, will write a report and recommendation for the Secretary of State.
Other news this week
Three more years In East Yorkshire, Rathlin Energy was given another three years to operate an exploratory drill site north of Hull. But councillors imposed a no-fracking condition. More details
Threat to tourism Officials in Ryedale, where Third Energy wants to frack a well, have raised concerns that it might put of tourists. A report to district councillors is recommending they object to the plans. More details
Financial loss IGas, which has plans to frack for shale gas in Nottinghamshire, announced a loss of £19.3m in half-year results. The company said it was looking for more fracking sites in the north west of England. More details
Weakening park protection The Labour peer, Lord Judd, accused the government of weakening protection for National Parks with its regulations on fracking. He said the regulations conflicted with the act of parliament that established the parks. More details
Wealth fund The autumn statement includes a reference to a shale gas wealth fund, which the chancellor said could be worth up to £1bn.
CCS competition The UK government withdraws ring-fenced money for a £1bn competition to develop carbon capture and storage, promised in the Conservative election manifesto.
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