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There is lots of coverage today suggesting councils in Lancashire will “reject” fracking, unless a much bigger share of the profits is allocated to their coffers. Some MPs and council leaders have written a threatening letter about it. The full text of the letter has not been published, but it has been leaked and quoted extracts include, according to The Times(£) :
“We reject the so-called voluntary arrangements decided, without local consultation, between the industry and the Government. These do not go far enough in incentivising support….The Local Government Association in August submitted a report seeking 10 per cent of revenues from shale gas production to be retained by local communities. We think that this is a fair starting point to begin discussions.”
The report adds:
Ben Wallace, the Tory MP for Lancaster and Wyre, Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary, and Gordon Birtwistle, the Liberal Democrat MP for Burnley, have all put their names to the concerns. Lancashire County Council, Cheshire West County Council,Wyre Borough Council, Fylde Council and Chorley District Council have also signed the letter.
Usually planning consent would be a matter for district councils, but with mineral extraction it is for county councils. As with any planning application it is quite wrong for a council to say in advance that it will approve or reject it, this is known as “predetermination”. Therefore it seems dubious for council leaders to have signed a letter with any such suggestion.
Also the role of the councils regarding shale is specifically limited to planning grounds. The Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, the Department for Energy and Climate Change are involved in other aspects. It is for those agencies to ensure, for example, that fracking would not cause earthquakes or water contamination.
For the councils, as planning authorities, the concerns would include, for example, the number of lorries involved. (Although truck movements round a quarry do rather more harm.) Or the visual impact. (Although extracting shale gas could be done relatively discreetly with the site blocked off by trees – compared, for example, to ugly wind turbines which need to be high up to get the wind.)
Certainly some Section 106 money could be negotiated in proportion to the impact of the development – for instance on road improvements. But a council is not entitled to refuse planning permission on the basis that they want 10 per cent of the proceeds going into the council’s bank account – or “retained by local communities” to use the LGA’s euphemism.
Lancashire County Council does not have the power to veto shale gas extraction by discriminatory use of their planning powers. Should they behave in such away the decision would be overturned on appeal. It would be wrong for the council to have such a power and they should stop pretending they do.
This is a national as well as a local issue and the current allocation of powers reasonably reflect that. Fracking offers fantastic opportunities for Lancashire, and the county council should stop the bluster and start responsible, constructive work to make a success of it.