England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development, Economy and regeneration, Transport and infrastructure

Who should grant permission to frack?

Fracking hit headlines earlier this month as scores of protestors arrived in the sleepy village of Balcombe, Sussex, to block Cuadrilla Resources’ latest explorations. Residents have said they are prepared for a summer of protest as the annual ‘Climate Camp’ is planning to occupy the village, and the news has even featured one couple with their hands glued together in a “human-lock”.

Hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting gas from deep underground by fracturing rock with a pressurised liquid, was given the green light by central government in late 2012. The industry hit a stumbling block when seismic activity occurred in Blackpool, leading the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to impose a moratorium. But after an assessment finding it to be safe, current government policy is now to support and promote fracking. As the industry looks set to grow, it’s important for local communities to have a say on the issue. However, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has recently published guidelines making it clear that the role of councils is not to challenge government energy policy.

The responsibility for granting the licenses and permission for fracking operations is shared by the local council and the Secretary of State, with the consent of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Environment Agency. However, DCLG’s recent guidelines emphasise that ‘mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies’, and that authorities should give great weight to this when determining planning applications. It’s also made clear that councils ‘should not consider demand for, or consider alternatives to, oil and gas resources when determining planning applications. Government energy policy makes it clear that energy supplies should come from a variety of sources.’ Councils are no longer able to investigate issues such as seismic activity, flaring and venting, or the potential impact on ground water supplies, before granting planning permission for new wells. Instead they are told to rely on the assessment of other regulatory bodies.

It’s clear from these guidelines that DCLG expects councils to assume a favourable position on fracking because it’s government policy. This underlines the enduring challenge for local authorities of adhering to national policy and representing the views of local people, when these can sometimes be in tension.

The government’s guidelines give rise to a number of questions of interest to localists: what should the role of the local authority be in granting planning permission to frack? Should local authorities have greater control in this area, or should national government’s energy policy take priority? To what extent should local communities be able to have a say over whether permission to frack is granted?

As government is eager to promote fracking and the industry grows, it’s important for local authorities to begin to address these questions.