Having previously dangled the carrot in front of local authorities to incentivise approval of fracking developments in the form of their promise to allow them to keep 100% of business rate revenues generated by fracking, the Conservative government now seems to be bringing out the stick.
An announcement from Department of Energy & Climate Change dated 13th August declared shale gas is a ‘national priority’, and warns that “shale applications can’t be frustrated by slow and confused decision making amongst councils”.
Consequently, new measures are being introduced to fast-track shale gas planning applications, including:
- Revising permitted development rights for drilling boreholes to monitor groundwater. Adding shale applications as a recovery criterion for appeals.
- Empowering the Communities Secretary to call in on shale planning applications and recover appeals.
- Identifying councils that fail to rule for or against oil and gas planning applications within 16 weeks, with a view to handing the final decision to the Communities Secretary.
- Forcing the Planning Inspectorate to prioritise shale application appeals and call-ins.
- Commentators believe the move is a direct response to Lancashire county's rejection of Cuadrilla’s applications to frack in the area, which came after repeated delays as the council carefully gathered and considered evidence.
Critics also say the government is attacking the right of local communities to decide whether or not they want fracking in their area.
Lancashire county council’s cabinet member for environment, planning and cultural services Marcus Johnstone told The Guardian, “I can see what the direction of travel is: it’s to remove local determinism, and the right of local people to have a say”.
Friends of the Earth’s planning adviser Naomi Luhde-Thompson seconded Johnstone’s assessment, arguing that “These changes are being made because the Government doesn’t agree with the democratic decisions councils have been making”.
However, councils now face a tough decision as the business case for fracking continues to stack up. As well as the promise of business rates revenue from shale gas developments, the government announcement refers to proposals to be presented ‘later in the year’ regarding the design of a new “sovereign wealth fund” that could help bolster council coffers.
In light of continued cuts in central government funding, councils may be forced to risk the ire of sections of their community in exchange for greater financial security in the future. Delay, and the decision could be taken out of their hands regardless.