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Alex Dale: Why mistrust will be fuelled if local councils like mine can’t decide fracking applications

Shotcutting the planning process on fracking risks undermining democracy, says Tory councillor Alex Dale.
Shotcutting the planning process on fracking risks undermining democracy, says Tory councillor Alex Dale.
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I BELIEVE in localism. I believe it is a core tenet of Conservatism. I also believe in the benefits of a fit-for-purpose planning system, and I do not support making exceptions to these values. But that’s exactly what has been proposed for fracking by the Government.

My experience as a county councillor is that most of the community from across the political and social spectrum have concerns with the proposed test drilling activities in our bit of beautiful rural Derbyshire. It’s the same for North Yorkshire.

Fracking protesters in North Yorkshire.

Fracking protesters in North Yorkshire.

It means I should take notice of the proposals being consulted on over the summer. The Government intends to bring shale gas exploration – including big industrial developments such as test drilling – under the permitted development regime. This would mean fracking companies no longer have to apply for local planning permission to get drilling. They further propose lifting large production sites out of local decision-making and into the national planning process.

And there is an important connection between fracking applications submitted through the planning system and existing Local Plans.

Put together these changes remove local knowledge, locally-elected representatives, and local people from decisions on an industry that could bring the most significant changes to the English countryside in a generation.

If we trounce that connection, we risk fuelling mistrust between residents and those of us elected to represent their views because it chips away at local democracy.

This is all done in the name of ending delays that some consider unnecessary. But where other departments fail to meet legal guideline deadlines, outside bodies come in – why should it be any different for fracking applications?

Aside from the fact that a robust business should have built-in capacity to deal with some delays, these recently proposed plans to accelerate the process are far from the right way to go about doing things. They remove what is perceived to be a nuisance – that is, considering local people’s views. Just the other week, a report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said there was minimal evidence these proposals would speed up the planning process.

The Government seem intent on proving that fracking is a special case, deserving special consideration – nothing short of teacher’s-pet treatment where the industry is given a free pass not to abide by the usual rules. I don’t see the case for that. If it is an issue of national importance, then more consultation and time is needed for the local planning process, not less. If resources are an issue, assign adequate levels of support.

We need to step back and consider the process, the application, the industry and its impact as a whole because we are, in the fulsome and meaningful sense, custodians of our bit of England’s pleasant pastures.

Rightly proud of our heritage, we are tasked with a civic duty to uphold and defend our collective, natural inheritance. We do this often and in sometimes unspoken and unexciting ways, for example, through our planning system. Flawless it is not, but it has an important job to do.

One of its jobs is to minimise visual impacts and when it comes to fracking, predominantly affecting rural locations, modest impact claims are not entirely convincing. It’s all very well for fracking exponents to cite graphics showing that the Eiffel Tower is actually larger than a drill rig and nobody wanted to see Paris’s skyline change at the time or something, but there is such a thing as cumulative impact.

Recent research from Cardiff University estimates these cumulative impacts to be even more severe, with over 6,000 wells required to replace half of gas imports, on over 1,000 individual sites spread across our countryside. With the Government clear that our gas supplies are secure into the future we have a clear choice as a country as to whether or not the cumulative impacts of fracking are too high a price to pay for more home-grown gas.

I’m just not convinced that this is what anyone wants. With drilling rigs, concrete drilling platforms and thousands of HGVs needed for every single site, taken as a whole – and that is how we are supposed to consider these things – the industry is poised to significantly alter the character of large swathes of our beautiful countryside.

I don’t subscribe to the preserved-in-aspic approach to rural England, but I do very much think that we have a duty to preserve what is good, protect what needs protecting, and ensure we have a thriving countryside where people can live, work, raise a family and, most importantly, enjoy it.

As a councillor, I’m doing my duty and representing my constituents. Under the new proposals it would be impossible for me to do that. And impossible for my constituents to have a say over whether a similar development gets built in the future. That’s not localism; it’s not Conservatism, and it’s not doing the best by those who have elected us.

Alex Dale is a Tory councillor for the Dronfield East division on Derbyshire County Council. He previously worked for York Outer MP Julian Sturdy. A full version of this column first appeared on the Conservative Home website.