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Opinion: Shale gas – whose decision is it anyway?

Fracking protestors

The past week has seen the UK Government issue a policy statement designed to speed up the planning system for shale gas development, as well as announcing the extent of the 14th Round of Onshore Oil and Gas licences for England.

These announcements signal a new push from Government to deliver what they see as a vital new industry for the UK, but the measures have not been universally welcomed.

The measures themselves add little of practical relevance to the current system. However, the announcement of 159 new licence blocks, within days of the policy statement, is a very clear marker of Government intent and, perhaps, also their willingness to make greater use of their powers to help deliver shale development.

The policy statement offers a strong and concise position on the national need to explore our shale resource. It goes so far as to say that we “need to seize the opportunity now to explore and test our shale potential”. This statement in turn must be taken into account in weighing up planning decisions.

In the face of the recent refusals of shale applications in Lancashire, the announcements serve as a timely reminder that the UK needs gas, not only to provide flexibility while we deliver more renewable energy technologies, but also to support our manufacturing industry.

The Policy Statement, issued by both DECC and DCLG, sets out a number of measures, including actively considering “calling in” or “recovering” shale applications. Both of these processes allow Ministers to decide shale cases, rather than leaving decisions to local councils in England and Wales.

Understandably, opponents have criticised this, claiming that it’s a way of taking decisions out of local hands, and forcing unwanted development onto local communities.

However, all planning cases which result in national controversy can already be “called in”, with each case being considered on its own merits. Similarly, the criteria for the “recovery” of appeals already includes those cases which are of more than local significance; are important for delivering energy policies, or are related to major minerals schemes.

On this basis, these changes are unlikely to have a practical effect in their own right. The real test will be the extent to which Ministers make use of those powers.

The policy statement also commits Government to dealing with Councils that are under performing in terms of the speed with which they determine shale planning applications. Again the recourse may be for the Secretary of State to determine the application himself.

Planning authorities are already judged on both the speed and quality of their decisions. Existing powers can already result in authorities being put in special measures, under which applicants can elect to submit their application to the Planning Inspectorate directly, rather than the council.

Opponents have claimed this will help to push through applications against local will, but applicants should be aware that, in some cases, longer may be needed to reach a sound decision. Speed does not always result in the desired outcome.

The prioritisation of shale “call ins” and appeals is also put forward. This should be welcomed by all, as it helps to remove uncertainty from the process, both for promoters and objectors.

Finally, some further changes are being made to Permitted Development rights for exploratory works. These will reduce the need for operators to make planning applications for monitoring boreholes, which generally have no environmental effects and can already be undertaken by other mineral exploration companies, without the need for planning permission.

Matthew Sheppard is a director and head of Environmental Impact Assessment at Turley planning consultants and is based in Leeds, England.

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