New rules which almost guarantee fracking will not be carried out beneath the country’s most precious landscapes have been greeted by national park chiefs, but campaigners claim they are nothing more than a “sham”.
Ministers said the controversial process of fracking in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), world heritage sites and the Broads should be refused other than in “exceptional circumstances and in the public interest”.
Yet the anti-fracking lobby insisted that the inclusion of any such caveat exposed a “giant loophole” in the rules.
Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: “The supposed tougher rules to protect our beloved national parks from fracking are a sham.
“Ministers have banged on for months about shale drilling being in the national interest. Now, by introducing an exception under a vague ‘public interest’ case, they’ve created a giant loophole that could allow fracking all over these protected areas, potentially causing serious environmental damage to our unique natural heritage.”
The latest round of drilling licences includes much of the UK, including regions assessed as having shale resources, and covers areas in several national parks including the Peak District, the North York Moors and the South Downs National Parks.
But the North York Moors National Park Authority said it had received no expressions of interest from the energy industry, and bosses said they were heartened by the Government’s rules.
Chris France, the Moors’ director of planning, said: “We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that national parks are special. This is also an acknowledgement that fracking falls into the category of ‘major development’ as set out within the National Planning Policy Framework, which says that this sort of development - much like mineral extraction or power stations - should be refused in national parks or AONBs unless there are exceptional circumstances and if development can take place outside of national parks and AONBs then it should do.
“A statement of environmental awareness will also have to be prepared for proposals within and adjacent to national parks which is a major acknowledgement that development outside of national parks can still damage them.”
The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s chief executive David Butterworth said: “As far as we aware there is very little gas or oil-bearing shale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and we have not therefore had any inquiries from any companies about exploration.
“Of course, some national parks and AONBs are potentially affected by developments of this kind so we welcome the Government’s renewed commitment to the existing protections that are set out in the National Planning Framework.”
Where a fracking application is made in a protected area and is refused and then that decision is the subject of an appeal from the developer, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will consider whether to make the final decision himself to ensure the policy is being properly applied.
Business and energy minister Matthew Hancock said: “The new guidance published today will protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes.
“Ultimately, done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country.”