Removing local powers on fracking at this stage would be a draconian step, by Richard Garlick

Lancashire county councillors will have been keenly aware of the political heat associated with fracking when they refused two applications to use the technology during the course of the past week.

They had seen protesters mass outside their offices and received letters warning that they would be held personally accountable for harm arising from any consent.

How big a part this played in their decision to reject both applications, one of them against officers' advice, only they will know. Their verdict has been hailed in some quarters as evidence of local government's ability to resist pressure from central government, which has said it is "going all out for shale", as well as from big business.

No other mineral planning authority, however, is likely to set much store by the decisions until they have been tested at appeal. The applicant in both cases, the energy company Cuadrilla, has said it is considering such a challenge. If Lancashire County Council were to lose an appeal, and pick up an even bigger legal bill than it already faces in the process, fracking applicants may find that their path to planning permission across the country suddenly becomes much smoother.

The county council took 15 months to reach these decisions, much longer than the 16 weeks set out in government guidelines. These delays have fuelled suggestions that decisions on the application of what the government sees as a nationally important new source of energy should not be left to local bodies. Some would like to see fracking brought into the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) regime.

But central government has shown little appetite to grab a hot potato from the mineral planning authorities. Westminster sources were quoted this week as saying that the "quasi-judicial" planning process must be left to run its course. This suggests that personal intervention in decisions by the secretary of state is unlikely, as is classification of fracking projects as NSIPs.

Leaving clarification of the environment for fracking applications to conventional planning processes will take time. Some have suggested that it could be another two years before verdicts on appeals against the two Lancashire refusals are reached. But removing mineral planning authorities' decision-making powers on such a controversial technology at this stage would be a draconian step that would only further poison the debate. Better surely to accept that the system needs to be given the chance, through appeals and court challenges, to show how it will treat fracking.

This does not necessarily mean blocking the progress of the technology while a verdict on the appeals is awaited. The onshore gas industry will no doubt have taken encouragement that none of Lancashire's reasons for refusal were fracking-specific - the applications were turned down on grounds such as noise or landscape impact, rather than due to concerns frequently cited by protesters such as water pollution or earthquake risk. Onshore oil and gas firms say that more fracking applications will be made shortly. So planning battles over the technology have only just begun.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning // planning@haymarket.com


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