What the Lancashire fracking refusals mean for future shale gas applications

Lancashire County Council's decision to refuse two fracking applications - one against officers' advice - has prompted debate over whether the current rules for determining such applications are fit for purpose.

Fracking opposition: though campaigners claimed victory refusals are seen to be on 'normal planning grounds' (pic Friends of the Earth)
Fracking opposition: though campaigners claimed victory refusals are seen to be on 'normal planning grounds' (pic Friends of the Earth)

Over the past week, the council's refusal of the first fracking applications to be considered after the government lifted a moratorium on the controversial practice drew attention from media and lobbyists. Environmental campaigners said the decisions on two sites east of Blackpool show the strength of local opposition to shale gas extraction, but calls are growing to consider whether applications could progress via a national process rather than being decided locally.

Energy firm Cuadrilla submitted an application to the council to drill, fracture and flow test up to four wells at Roseacre Wood, but it was rejected by the council's development control committee. The refusal was in line with a recommendation from council planners who said the scheme would result in an "unacceptable impact on the rural highway network and on existing road users".

A second application to drill, fracture and flow test up to four wells at Preston New Road had been recommended for approval by planners. However, the development control committee voted to refuse it, citing unacceptable landscape and noise impacts. The council had been due to decide the application last week but deferred it until earlier this week to let members consider legal advice.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson, planning adviser at charity Friends of the Earth, said the decisions show the government that "people don't want high-volume hydraulic fracturing". She said it is right that fracking applications are decided by councils because local impacts are best considered at a local level. "It ensures local democratic accountability," she said. "We need to strengthen democracy in this country, not undermine it."

However, Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, said the decisions are "hardly going to encourage" fracking applications. "There is fairly strong government support for fracking, so perhaps that will give developers confidence. But it will be difficult getting through the local stage each time because fears about the adverse impacts will be given more weight locally," he said.

Walker added that fracking applicants should have the option of using the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) regime. "This is a matter of national significance, so you would think that it would be more suitable for the national process," he said. He said there is nothing stopping fracking applicants from using the process introduced under the Planning Act 2008.

Matthew Sheppard, director and head of environmental impact assessment at consultancy Turley, said it would probably help the industry if it were able to apply through the NSIP regime rather than submitting at a local level. He added that if the government is to meet its pledge to promote shale gas, then it must consider "whether all councils are going to have similar difficulties".

Sheppard added that Lancashire County Council's reasons for refusing the two applications were "actually very normal planning reasons" and did not include any factors often cited by anti-fracking lobbyists, such as concerns relating to water contamination, earth tremors or chemical spills.

He said: "There are several things that the wider industry can do to overcome some more standard reasons for refusal. So it's about understanding where you are putting your development, what its effects are likely to be and putting in place some mitigation where you are not able to avoid sensitive receptors completely."

In a statement following the refusal of the Preston New Road application, Cuadrilla said it remains "committed to the responsible exploration of the huge quantity of natural gas locked up in the shale rock deep underneath Lancashire". It said it would "take time to consider our options regarding an appeal for Preston New Road", and consider an appeal over the decision to refuse the Roseacre Wood application.

In a statement, Marcus Johnstone, council cabinet member for environment, planning and cultural services, said the Preston New Road application was "one of the biggest planning decisions ever put before the council". He said the committee had "ultimately cast their vote based on the evidence they have heard, and whether they think the proposal is acceptable in planning terms and to the people they represent".

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