Ministers 'could take over fracking applications'


Ministers could take over decision-making from local councils on any planning application for fracking under new measures.

The Government has said it is going "all out for shale", but oil and gas companies keen to exploit the resource have come up against local opposition, with councils turning down applications in potential shale areas including Lancashire and Sussex.

Shale gas bids will now be fast-tracked through the planning process as part of efforts to drive development of the industry in the UK, but the move has prompted furious opposition from campaigners who claimed it rode "rough shod over democracy".

Under the new measures, the Communities Secretary Greg Clark will actively consider "calling in" or taking over determining any application for shale gas exploration and extraction from local councils.

Councils that repeatedly fail to take longer than the statutory 16 weeks to make a decision - unless they have agreed with applicants to extend the time frame - face having shale gas planning decisions made by the Communities Secretary.

He will also take charge of determining appeals against planning rejections on a case-by-case basis, while all call-ins and appeals over shale applications will be prioritised by the planning inspectorate.

The Government said the moves will unlock the "huge potential" for shale gas by speeding up the planning process, claiming no one benefited from slow and confused decision making by councils.

Local communities would remain fully involved in planning decisions, and that strong safety and environmental safeguards were already in place to ensure fracking was safe and only happened in appropriate places.

Ministers hope development of onshore gas supplies in the UK will boost jobs and the economy, bring down energy prices and make the country less reliant on foreign imports.

But opponents fears the process of extracting gas by hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - causes earthquakes, can pollute water supplies, could lead to inappropriate development in the countryside, damage house prices and cause more climate emissions.

Mr Clark said: "There is huge potential right across the country for safe and sustainable use of shale gas, to provide a clean long term energy source and create British jobs and growth.

"People's safety and the environment will remain paramount and communities will always be involved in planning applications but no one benefits from uncertainty caused by delays in planning decisions.

"By fast tracking any appropriate applications today's changes will tackle potential hold ups in the system."

Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said: "We are backing the safe development of shale gas because it's good for jobs, giving hardworking people and their families more financial security, good for our energy security and part of our plan to decarbonise the economy.

"We need more secure, home grown energy supplies - and shale gas must play a part in that."

She said to ensure the industry got up and running there could not be a planning system in which decisions dragged on for months or even years on end.

But Greenpeace head of energy campaign Daisy Sands said: "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."

Friends of the Earth senior energy campaigner Naomi Luhde-Thompson said: "Bulldozing fracking applications through the planning system, against the wishes of local people and councils, will simply fan the flames of mistrust and opposition.

"Local authorities have been following the rules. These changes are being made because the Government doesn't agree with the democratic decisions councils have been making."

The move comes after Lancashire County Council turned down two bids for fracking for shale gas between Blackpool and Preston at the end of June, a decision which was delayed from January and which now faces appeal.

The latest Government polling shows public support for fracking slipping away, with just a fifth of people backing the extraction of shale gas for use in the UK, the lowest level since the Department of Energy first polled people on the issue in December 2013.

Ken Cronin, chief executive of industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), said: "The onshore oil and gas industry is committed to consulting and working with local communities to develop the gas resources that this country desperately needs to access.

"However, recent 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 the interests of local people, the industry, or indeed the British people."

Shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint said the Conservatives have "consistently ignored genuine and legitimate concerns" about fracking.

She said: "Now they are going a step further by denying local communities a say in decisions about whether it should go ahead.

"In June they issued planning guidance giving local residents 'the final say' over wind farm applications. However, when it comes to shale gas, they are saying the secretary of state should have 'the final say' and are clearly guilty of double standards."