The reputation of a national park faces being damaged by the intensity of debate over fracking, the leader of the body charged with managing it has said.
Jim Bailey, chairman of the North York Moors National Park Authority, said reaction to the Government’s push towards developing shale gas had raised the stakes for the “brand and values” of the 554sq mile area of pastures, moorland and woodlands that have been granted the highest level of protection since 1952.
VisitEngland has identified the national park as both one of the country’s best-known destinations and one with the most positive perceptions for potential visitors and has labelled it an “Attract Brand”, alongside York and Scarborough.
The brand of the park, which attracts about eight million visitors annually, is viewed by tourism bosses as vital to the local economy as businesses benefit from it, even if they are just outside the designated area.
Third Energy’s planned fracking site to the south of the national park, at Kirby Misperton, has been the focus of widespread attention due to intense campaigning, with police making 86 arrests there between September last year and March.
As reported exclusively in The Yorkshire Post earlier this year, energy firm Ineos refused to rule out fracking underneath the North York Moors during face-to-face meetings with national park officials.
During those talks, national park officials made it clear that they would not welcome attempts to seek permission to reach shale rock beneath the park from well sites outside its boundaries.
Mr Bailey, who is also a Ryedale councillor, highlighted his concerns during a debate by authority members over their response to a Government proposal to allow some shale gas developments to bypass the local planning process.
The Government has suggested steps such as treating non-hydraulic fracturing shale gas exploration schemes – where the process of fracturing rock at depth to release gas deposits without the use of fluid pressure – as “permitted development” could streamline the “disappointingly slow” planning process.
Authority officers have warned that the Government’s intention not to apply a new permitted development right in national parks “may not be maintained” and that such schemes outside the national park boundary could give rise to potential impacts within it.
Mr Bailey told members the county’s Minerals and Waste Plan was the “organised test” of how such developments should happen and that it and public consultation would be “usurped” by what would be a “very unhelpful and short-sighted” policy.
He added: “As the shale gas debate has become more and more emotive and polarised, whether or not the science pans out as expected, the more the concept of harm has increased.
“When it was something that wasn’t so emotive the potential damage to national parks wasn’t so much, but now it’s become hugely emotive the potential damage to what I see as the brand and the values and public perception is something to be concerned about.
“The stakes have increased on this debate just because it has become so emotive.”
MP for North East Derbyshire, Lee Rowley has warned that the Tories could lose the next general election unless it drops its support for fracking. At a recent Conservative Party conference fringe event, he warned that there are around 200 seats where fracking licenses have been granted, many of which are marginals.