Fracking bids to be fast-tracked

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

media captionEnvironmental groups oppose plans to give ministers the power to approve fracking if local authorities take too long

Shale gas planning applications in England are to be fast-tracked under new government measures to crack down on councils that delay decisions.

Councils will be told they must rule on applications within the current 16-week statutory timeframe.

If they repeatedly delay, ministers might take over the power to decide all future applications in that local area.

Environmentalists say it makes a mockery of the government's promise to give power to local people.

The government says it will take local views into account, but that developing shale gas is a national priority that must not be held up.

The announcement is less of a major change in planning law than a warning shot across the bows of local authorities.

Ministers already have powers to take over the decision on any controversial planning issue at any stage of the application.

They say they will now consider applying this power routinely to every bid to drill for shale gas.

They will also ask the Planning Inspectorate to give priority to any appeals against planning refusal for shale gas that come its way.

Self sufficiency

Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said: "We need more secure, home grown energy supplies - and shale gas must play a part in that.

"We can't have a planning system that sees applications dragged out for months, or even years. We need a system that delivers timely planning decisions and works effectively for local people and developers."

media captionEnergy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd says delays in decisions on fracking "don't help anybody"

If fracking yields ample supplies of gas (which is still an unknown), the Treasury will be relieved. The tax take from North Sea oil and gas tax has dropped by more than £6bn over three years and the Office of Budget Responsibility recently slashed its long-term North Sea revenue forecast by 94%.

The government's announcement is seen as a response to Lancashire County Council's recent rejection of Cuadrilla's shale gas applications after more than a year of deliberations.

But the council is unhappy at the suggestion that they delayed on purpose.

They point out this was the first such application in the UK so it was bound to take extra time to decide on complex technical issues. They also point out that Cuadrilla actually asked them to delay to get more time to solve traffic issues.

A spokesman told BBC News: "It would be very unfair to suggest that we didn't go as fast as possible. This was the first decision in the UK on fracking so there was a lot of pressure on us to get it right."

Daisy Sands from Greenpeace said: "The contrast between [the government's] view that local councils should be 'masters of their own destiny' and the new provisions announced today is staggering.

"Local residents could end up with virtually no say over whether their homes, communities and national parks are fracked or not.

"There is a clear double standard at play - the same government that is intent on driving through fracking at whatever cost has just given more powers to local councils to oppose wind farms, the cheapest source of clean energy. The government is riding rough-shod over democracy to industrialise our most beautiful landscapes and damage the climate."

Ken Cronin, chief executive of UKOOG, the onshore oil and gas body, said: "Experience has shown that the planning process is unwieldy and the time taken for planning decisions has soared from three months to over a year, causing delay and cost and this is not in the interests of local people, the industry, or indeed the British people.

"It is right that the government is acting to ensure that local people can have their say and that the highest standards of safety and environmental protection are met, but also ensuring that the planning process itself is fit for purpose."

A CBI spokesperson said: "Shoring up our energy supply for the future is critical for businesses as they look to make long-term investment decisions.

"Shale gas could play an important role in UK energy and it is important that the planning process works in a timely manner so that industry is able to get on and explore its potential."

The Local Government Association's environment spokesman Councillor Peter Box said: "People living near fracking sites - who are most affected by them - have a right to be heard. Local planning procedure exists for a reason, to ensure a thorough and detailed consultation with those communities. "

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