Reasons behind fracking approval held faultless

The reasoning behind an inspector's decision to allow shale gas exploration in Lancashire was unimpeachable, the High Court has ruled.

The six-year exploration programme involved drilling, fracturing shale and examining the potential reserves. Lancashire County Council refused permission on the basis that it would have an unacceptable impact on the area’s landscape and visual amenity. At appeal (DCS Number 200-005-629), the inspector accepted that the landscape had some value but decided that any adverse impacts would be reversible and short-term. She gave little weight to concerns about public health, given the statutory monitoring and licensing regime under which the developers would have to operate.

In challenging the decision, a local action group argued that the inspector had applied an inconsistent approach in assessing the effect on a "valued landscape" and her decision failed to comply with paragraph 109 of the NPPF. It also asserted that she had misapplied various development plan policies and that the environmental statement was defective because it did not provide an estimate of the cumulative impact of emissions during the exploratory stage.

Dealing with the effect on the local landscape, Mr Justice Dove ruled that a policy in a core strategy stating that landscapes should be "protected from harm" did not mean that development should automatically be refused. In his view, the strategy allowed for development where harm could be reduced to acceptable levels and this had been the approach followed by the inspector.

Noting that paragraph 109 takes a similar approach, the judge held that the inspector had been entitled to conclude that the scheme would not conflict with the long-term aim of conserving and enhancing the natural environment. He agreed that a similar conclusion on the scheme’s impact on residential amenity was also a matter for the inspector’s judgement.

Finally, the judge held that whether or not the exploration revealed viable reserves of shale gas was not a matter of relevance. The exploration proposal had to be determined on its merits and any longer-term extraction would be subject to a further application, he noted. Dismissing the challenge, he concluded that the inspector had considered the matter fairly and her reasoning on the interconnection with the planning regime and other statutory controls was unimpeachable.

Preston New Road Action Group v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Date: 12 April 2017

Ref: [2017] EWHC 808 (Admin)

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