I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Menzies on securing this debate on this important topic. I am not a Lancashire MP, but I stand here as a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, which has looked at the issue in some detail, and as chair of the all-party group on unconventional oil and gas.
I have worked on this issue in some detail and discussed it at great length with a wide variety of stakeholders throughout industry and beyond. There is great consensus on the community benefit and we have reached the stage where no one is disputing or discussing whether we should have a community benefit scheme; we are simply discussing the detail. There are various reasons why an effective scheme is important and it may be best summed up in a phrase that many hon. Members have heard before: the industry requires a social licence to operate. A community that hosts shale gas resources and could see shale gas development take place is entitled to ask two legitimate questions: is it safe, and how will our community benefit from the process? It is incumbent on the Government and industry to answer both those questions
Today’s debate is not about safety, except that, echoing hon. Members who have spoken, we must take this forward with the highest environmental standards, in keeping with the gold standard that we already apply to oil and gas regulation in the UK. Today’s debate is about the benefit to people and communities in Lancashire. It is their gas; it is not Cuadrilla’s gas or Centrica’s gas, and it is certainly not the Government’s gas, although the law may imply that it is. I am not a socialist, but as far as I am concerned, it belongs to the people of Lancashire, and it is important and absolutely right when developing a domestic UK shale industry that the local communities who will host that industry and new development should benefit from their own natural resources.
Loosely speaking, two benefits can accrue from a large-scale infrastructure project. One is the natural or organic benefit: the jobs, supply chain and activity from the very process of the investment and flow from the activity without intervention from the Government. The other, which is what we are principally talking about today, is the artificial cash benefit that can be put in place by the industry through voluntary agreements or by the Government to ensure that some of the profit and revenue stream from the industry are shared locally.
I want both forms of benefit to accrue to the people of Lancashire. On the first point, it is essential that the maximum benefit in jobs and investment must accrue as locally as possible to the operation of the shale gas pads. Employing local people and developing a local supply chain is fundamental to making the industry part of the community instead of it being an outside industry that comes in and does things to the community.
In Aberdeen and the surrounding region, for example, the offshore oil and gas industry supports 137,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. We may not see quite the same number of jobs in Lancashire, much as we would all love to, but the highly detailed report by the Institute of Directors estimated that there is potential for up to 74,000 direct and indirect jobs nationwide from developing
UK shale gas. Not all the jobs will be in Lancashire, but many will, and it is important that when the industry and particularly the supply chain go forward with their plans, they do their best to maximise the number of jobs that stay locally within the region.
On the artificial cash benefits, the proposals currently under discussion have been alluded to: £100,000 per exploratory well and eventually 1% of revenue from the development phase going to the local community. Over the lifetime of a shale gas pad, that could amount to a considerable sum, and I agree with those who have already noted that we should remain flexible about community benefits to ensure that, as the industry’s profitability becomes better known and we have more information, we can ensure that the benefits remain at a suitable level.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about one fundamental and important question. How does one define the community? Most of our present discussions about community benefits boil down to the question, who is the community? The judgment call on exactly who should receive a direct benefit is often spoken of in terms of municipal level—parish, district or county—but it is important to note that people do not necessarily mean the parish council, the district council or the county council. They use those words as shorthand for the municipal level to which the community benefit should go.
If the community is defined too narrowly, it may create division rather than consensus, and I have seen that in my constituency. When campaigning in Curdworth as a young parliamentary candidate not that many years ago, I asked what the village’s main issue was and someone said, “Them on that side of the village got compensated for the Birmingham northern relief road and we over here, one road over, weren’t.” The compensation package had caused division in the village because the definition of who should benefit was too narrow.
However, if the definition is too wide, there are two concerns. One is simply that if the benefit is diluted too much, it may not provide a genuine benefit. Another danger is the message sent about the impact of the industry. If someone living 10, 15 or 20 miles from a shale gas pad is told that they will receive a community benefit to compensate them for having it in the area, are we not pandering to a myth, because someone 15 or 20 miles away may not notice that it is there? The evidence is that there will probably be no impact more than a few miles away from a shale gas pad.