How fracking blow will test government resolve on devolution
As controversial energy method suffers planning blight, our political columnist weighs the potential effects on the “Northern Powerhouse”
Fracking shares were in decline this week after Lancashire County councillors rejected Cuadrilla’s bid to drill in Preston New Road, Little Plumpton. With community campaigners and the fracking industry set against each other, the council planning committee is caught in the middle. And this local conflict is mirrored at a national level within government itself.
What we’ll see in Whitehall and Westminster during this Parliament is a difficult balancing act between the government’s position on onshore drilling and its desire to devolve power to a more local level. David Cameron has said the Conservatives are “going all out for shale”, and Energy and Climate secretary Amber Rudd has promised to deliver the benefits of this new energy source. But, the headline-grabbing “Northern Powerhouse” initiative is just the spearhead for a devolution agenda that – as set out in the Conservative manifesto – is designed to give local people more control over planning. In Lancashire, local people have spoken.
In many ways, the Lancashire decision – which could be overturned on appeal – is testament to the extent of local power. Nationally, the debate on shale looks to have been lost by environmentalists who would prefer investment in renewable sources. Arguments based on the international threat of global warming haven’t won enough people around. But at a local level, arguments about noise and impact on the landscape – hugely important to the local community, but less so outside the area – have, for the moment, stopped an industry in its tracks.
It seems unlikely that the fracking industry will pack up and leave based on this setback, particularly with the looming possibility of an appeal. But what is the government to do when two big ambitions – localism and economic development through onshore drilling – are set against each other?
An important figure in the policy tussle will be Greg Clark, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government and architect of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): the system that sought to streamline the planning process during the Coalition period. The NPPF itself is a difficult balancing act between proactively driving economic development (thumbs up for shale) and recognising the intrinsic value of the countryside (thumbs down).
Some believe a change in planning law is needed. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, led by climate sceptic Lord Lawson, wants the government to take future fracking decisions out of local hands. This would be possible if fracking sites were to be defined as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. However, that route would be seen as a complete volte-face by Clark – a vocal champion of localism.
But there could be another way.
What if, in order to start drilling, energy companies had to fund the development of a neighbourhood plan… a new mechanism set up through the NPPF to encourage local communities to shape the development of their local areas?
To get the plan approved so that it carried weight in the planning process, a majority of local people would have to vote in favour in a referendum. Those votes would depend upon the community benefit offer put on the table by the drilling company and its plans for the local area. Different parts of the country could put different values on their local landscapes and come up with different packages of community benefit. In short, community and fracking interests would need to sit round the table, and thrash out the best deal.
Of course, given the number of drilling sites in the offing, the whole process could paralyse the energy companies and the planning system for years to come. But if refused applications and appeals are going to characterise the roll out of shale, that’s pretty much the situation anyway.
Jon Bennett is Managing Director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.