'Let Lancashire decide on fracking': politicians demand to keep local control over future drilling proposals
Lancashire County Council has called on the government to pledge that local politicians will be allowed to make the final decision on any future proposals for fracking in the area.
The demand was made as part of a motion which also sought to establish exactly what Prime Minister Liz Truss meant when she said that shale gas extraction would go ahead only in those places where there was “local community support” for it.
Fracking was on the agenda at a meeting of the full council on Thursday afternoon following the announcement last month that the government was lifting the moratorium - a temporary ban - on the process, which was put in place in 2019 in the wake of a 2.9-magnitude earth tremor in the vicinity of energy firm Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road drilling site in Little Plumpton.
The motion was brought forward by Green Party group leader Gina Dowding who said that Ms. Truss had “failed to define” how local community consent for fracking would be measured.
“Who is going to be consulted - one person per household, everyone in the house, children who stand to be affected most by the long-term impacts of fracking?
“[Perhaps via] a referendum - maybe it’s one of those Putin-style referendums where we know the answer before they’ve even done it.
“But what's absolutely clear is that people in Lancashire have already said no to fracking.
"Public opinion is against fracking, local Tory MPs are against fracking, local Tory ministers are against fracking - and what’s worse is the planet can’t hack fracking,” County Cllr Dowding said as she opened the debate at County Hall.
Her concerns over community consent were echoed across the chamber, with County Cllr John Singleton - the Conservative member for the Fylde West division - demanding a “hard and fast definition for the phrase ‘local community support’”.
He added: “In my opinion, such local community support should only be measured in the areas where fracking is being considered,” he said, noting that Fylde Council had passed a “similar” motion this week.
“We must have a clear understanding [of] this really important issue for our residents”.
Tory cabinet member for economic development and growth Aidy Riggott said that it was one of two “key issues” to be considered - the other being to ensure that the county council did not do anything that could result in the authority being legally challenged about any decisions it subsequently makes over fracking.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali sought to add to the motion the request for the government to commit to decision-making on fracking remaining “solely with locally-elected councillors” on the relevant local planning authority - which, for fracking applications, would be Lancashire County Council itself.
“The reasoning behind this is very simple,” he explained.
“The government has the powers…to look at a planning application and deem it to be of national importance or national infrastructure. And [given] the way that the government has said that fracking is going to be a silver bullet to our energy needs, [they] could quite easily - [as with] the coal mine planning issue in Cumbria - …decide to take it and make it into a decision for the cabinet minister for communities and levelling up.”
In October 2016, the then communities secretary, Sajid Javid, overturned Lancashire County Council’s refusal of permission for fracking at Preston New Road, following an appeal by Cuadrilla against the decision and a subsequent public inquiry.
However, even if the government agreed to the authority’s latest call for it to retain local control, applicants behind fracking proposals would still have the right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and the courts.
County Cllr Dowding’s original motion had sought to ensure that a review of the Lancashire Minerals and Waste Plan should include a commitment that any application to extract hydrocarbons would have to “fully reflect the ‘net-zero impact on climate change’ objective”.
However, County Cllr Riggott moved to amend the wording of some parts of the motion for fear that it would put the authority in conflict with national policy by effectively banning fracking at a local level.
County Cllr Dowding accepted both County Cllrs Riggott and Ali’s changes and additions as “friendly amendments” and the county council unanimously resolved to:
***follow examples of good practice in its review of the Lancashire Minerals and Waste Plan. The plan will be subject to statutory obligations, advice and guidance, and to agreement with Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen [councils];
***ask the chief executive to write to the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to seek clarity on how consent will be measured and precisely who will be asked in relation to any proposed fracking activities in Lancashire.
***ask the government to commit to decision-making on fracking to remain solely with locally-elected members in the local planning authority.
County councillors had been greeted on their way in to County Hall with a demonstration by dozens of members of Frack Free Lancashire, some of whom also watched the debate in the chamber.
Following the outcome of the meeting, a spokesperson for the group said: “Frack Free Lancashire are pleased that Lancashire County Council have recognised the critical importance of retaining local decision-making and are putting pressure on the government to define exactly what they mean by ‘local support’.
“Nobody will accept visits from fracking companies armed with cheque books and bluster as a proper method of proving local consent for this invasive industry.
“It’s a shame that the negative climate impacts of fracking in the motion were watered down through amendments, however we are clear that fracking is a climate-damaging technology that should be confined to the past.”
‘COUNCILLORS HAVE TO BE CAREFUL WHAT THEY SAY’
In a separate question earlier in the debate about whether county council leader Phillippa Williamson supported the lifting of the fracking moratorium, County Cllr Riggott - who answered it as he leads on the issue in cabinet - said it would be “unwise” to offer an opinion either way.
The cabinet member for economic development and growth warned that doing so could suggest that the authority had made up its mind about any future fracking applications before it had considered them as part of the official planning process.
County Cllr Riggott said he understood that the change in government policy was of interest locally and that “seismic events are a concern for residents and communities”.
However, he added: “The county council does have a statutory duty as the minerals and waste planning authority to determine planning applications for fracking and we also have a legal duty to prepare a minerals and waste local plan that must contain policies about how planning applications for fracking will be assessed.
“In carrying out these duties, we must be proportionate and have regard to government guidance and policy. For these reasons, it would be unwise to offer support - or otherwise - for the lifting of the moratorium.
“This will avoid any challenge that the council or its members have formed an opinion about fracking that could be taken to be pre-determined.
“We must remain neutral up to a point of determination and it’s for this reason that I will not be providing an opinion regarding the lifting of the moratorium on fracking,” County Cllr Riggott said.
County Cllr Jackie Oates, Labour’s representative for Rossendale East, who asked the question, said that she was “very disappointed” with the answer to what she described as a “simple” poser.
Prior to that question - and also the debate on the fracking notice of motion - County Hall’s monitoring officer had cautioned councillors about their contributions to the proceedings.
Laura Sales said that present and potential future members of the authority's development control committee - who would decide upon any future fracking applications - along with anyone sitting on the joint advisory committee that will review Lancashire’s minerals and waste plan, must not be seen to approach those responsibilities with a “closed mind”.
“In other words, that [means] you would consider no other possibility beyond the view that you have formed and that you’re not able to apply your judgement fully and properly to the issue before you on those committees requiring a decision.”
Ms. Sales said that the relevant committee members should “consider very carefully their position” during the discussion at full council, adding:
“I am happy for members of those committees to remain in the room, to hear and - if appropriate - participate and vote in the debate, but can I remind you of this requirement to keep an open mind - and to demonstrate that you’re keeping an open mind on these matters which may come to you to determine at some future date.”