Before I call Mark Menzies to move the motion, I say to all hon. Members that the debate will last only one hour and will finish at 5.30 pm. There are lots of hon. Members in the Chamber, and I am sure that many wish to make contributions. I am keen for everyone to have their say, but I warn hon. Members that the time limit for speeches is likely to be extremely short. As a sign of courtesy from one hon. Member to another, I strongly encourage those who are seeking to make a speech to resist making an intervention as well. In this debate, it simply will not be fair to have two bites of the cherry.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered local involvement in shale gas development.
Thank you for your guidance at the start of this well-attended debate, Mr Hollobone. Many right hon. and hon. Members have been emailed by constituents asking them to come along and support Mark Menzies in his debate. If it is any consolation, I, too, have been emailed by constituents asking me to come along and support Mark Menzies in his debate. I assure those constituents that I am supporting Mark Menzies in his debate.
Throughout my time as a Member of Parliament, I have lived with shale gas. I have seen several sites in my constituency developed, and some have been developed and abandoned. I could talk about that for some time. When I was elected in 2010, it came as a surprise that in 2008 the previous Labour Government had awarded a shale gas exploration licence for the area that covers my constituency and some of my neighbouring constituencies. At the time, it was not well known about and the level of awareness was quite low. The company did not even have a website, so finding out what was going on took some doing.
Since its introduction in the UK, shale gas extraction has become a contentious issue. Individuals on both sides offer passionate arguments, as I have witnessed throughout my tenure as a Member of Parliament. My contribution today will largely focus on the proposed planning changes that have been out for consultation.
I will be quick. Does my hon. Friend think that shale gas extraction is worthwhile? Are there enough layers of schist in this country, as opposed to the vast expanses of the European plain, to make it profitable or to get enough gas out of it?
The companies concerned argue that there are substantial reserves of shale gas. The issue, and the difference between the United Kingdom and large swathes of America, is population density. We are not Dakota or rural Pennsylvania, where people can travel for hundreds of miles without seeing a farmhouse.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is about not just population density, but unique areas. In my constituency, the villages of Allerton Bywater and Great Preston have many unmapped mine shafts. Looking at what is happening in Lancashire with seismic movement, there is a real concern with the exploratory licence that has been granted that, in areas with unmapped mine shafts, seismic movement will cause collapses and sinkholes at the top. Decisions at the local level are, therefore, more important in this kind of planning application.
Let me make some progress and I will take some more interventions.
As the Minister is aware, the Department recently held a consultation on the proposals to bring applications for non-hydraulic fracturing sites under permitted development rights. In addition, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy simultaneously held a consultation on proposals to bring the production phase of a site under the nationally significant infrastructure projects—NSIP—scheme.
I recognise the issues surrounding the development of shale gas sites. The Government’s concern that it takes local mineral rights authorities far too long to consider planning applications carries some legitimacy. It originally took Lancashire County Council 12 months to consider each of the applications in my constituency. It was a further 15 months after appeal before a decision was made on Preston New Road. Four years on, no decision has been made on the Roseacre Wood site.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Would he comment on the fact that Lancashire County Council voted against the planning application, but that was overruled by the Government?
I will touch on that further. The situation in Lancashire, particularly with Preston New Road, was slightly more nuanced than that. Officers recommended approval but councillors voted against. The issue is that we are kidding ourselves if we think that those decisions are being taken locally. Overwhelmingly, they are not. They end up being called in by the Planning Inspectorate, and for some of these sites, there is more than one planning inquiry that runs on at enormous expense and is incredibly complicated. The decision is then taken out of local people’s hands. The situation at the moment is fully flawed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. That is the very heart of it. We have heard evidence in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee about the arguments for addressing that, picking it up as a piece of national infrastructure and treating it the same, but are we not denuding our local democracy in that process? We try to respect our democracy here, and it is so important, particularly in the current climate, that people are heard locally.
“‘people power’ more than ever” and that the Government’s civil society strategy will put communities at the centre of decision making? If the Government were being consistent, should local communities not have more say in fracking matters, and not have their voices taken away?
I will try to make some progress, but I shall also try to be generous in taking interventions.
It cannot be the case that decisions that were taking so long are now simply being sped up by the Government’s introduction of applications under permitted development rights. When we are talking about exploration sites, it can sound a bit innocent, but the scale of an exploration site is something to behold.
My hon. Friend mentioned rural Pennsylvania, where I went to look at this issue in 2015. I came back with the distinct impression that it can be done in a way that is sensitive to the countryside, but it needs careful planning. North Yorkshire County Council developed a plan that restricts proliferation and density, but the concern with NSIP and permitted development is that they will ride a coach and horses through those restrictions. We need to restrict the development of shale as it is rolled out.
I have an interest as the hon. Gentleman’s constituency neighbour—he has the end of Preston New Road and I have the beginning of it. He just referred to Roseacre Wood, which is a planning issue and not about the broader issues. As I am sure he has heard, purely and simply on the basis of what happened with Preston New Road on traffic planning, local residents’ concern about the position that Lancashire County Council took on that basis, and about planning terms, is considerable. Is it not regrettable, therefore, that as far as I am aware, no Minister—let alone the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who responded to the previous debate, and who we are now told by The Guardian has been going round talking to companies about how they should be fracking advocates around the world—has taken the trouble to come to Lancashire and see what is going on?
I do want to make some progress; I am three quarters of the way down the first page of my speech and I have been very generous in giving way.
Along with many colleagues here today, I have made submissions to both consultations, making clear my constituents’ opposition to the proposals, which is a position that is echoed whenever I speak to colleagues from across the House.
I have called this debate to discuss the issue further, as well as to raise the general matter of local involvement in major decisions such as the approval of shale gas sites. Under permitted development, proposals for shale gas exploration are subject to the requirements of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which is administered by the mineral rights authority for the area in which the proposed development will be located. The decisions that are taken are based on the national planning policy framework and include consideration of the operational impacts of the site, traffic management concerns, visual impact and the effect on nearby heritage features, among many other factors. If we were to move to a system whereby proposals for non-hydraulic fracturing shale exploration developments were decided under permitted development rights, that would no longer be the case.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I declare myself as a fracking sceptic, if not an opponent. Does he agree that trying to change the planning regime now, with the heritage that we already have on this issue, does not in my book pass what I would describe as “the sniff test”? It does not quite have legitimacy. It seems a sleight of hand and should be resisted.
I will give way in one moment, but I will just make some more progress on permitted development.
As we know, permitted development rights are most commonly used to simplify and speed up minor planning processes around such issues as small property extensions or the change of use of property. Indeed, I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Communities and Local Government, as it was then, at a time when we looked to relax permitted development rights on home extensions and conservatories, and even then the Department had to row back from its original proposals because even with changes on that scale, particularly in urban areas, the impact was there for all to see.
What permitted development rights are not suitable for are new and substantial developments, especially those that have significant and ongoing operational activities associated with them. As the Minister knows, I have extensive knowledge of shale gas development, with the first horizontal wells in the UK within my constituency. These are not small or straightforward developments by any means. They are major industrial sites that require the construction of substantial infrastructure to set up and countless vehicle movements to operate. Indeed, if you will indulge me, Mr Hollobone, I will go through some examples.
I will take the site on Preston New Road first. We have got thousands of tonnes of hardcore piled on top of double-layered polyurethane membranes; big trenches dug around a site that is up to 2 hectares; a 30-metre drilling rig; a 2-metre high perimeter fence; 4.8-metre high bunding and fencing; several cabins that are 3 metres in height; acoustic screening of 5 metres in height; a lighting rig of 9 metres in height; a 2.9-metre high-powered generator; two water tanks that are 3 metres in height; a 10-metre high emergency vent; an access road off a busy main road; and I could go on. Now, who on earth thinks that is equivalent to building a little extension on the side of your bungalow? It is not.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I am very grateful to him for initiating the debate. On that point, he has just described something that is hugely disruptive that we know is hugely unpopular. Does it not strike him as odd that we would subject that enterprise to permitted development, while at the same time making it almost impossible for the erection of new onshore wind turbines, which has been subjected almost entirely—rightly in my view—to local control? Does that not strike him as being inexplicably inconsistent and give the appearance of a policy that is driven more by ideology than anything else?
The inconsistencies in this process are there for all to see, and I really appeal to the Government to start approaching this issue in a sensible and consistent manner, whether we are talking about onshore wind or the shale gas sites that we are discussing today.
Let me just make some more progress and I will give way. [Interruption.] Permitted developments are certainly not appropriate for all locations.
Again, this is an issue that I have personal experience of. In addition to Cuadrilla Resources’ site at Preston New Road, proposals were also received for a further site within my constituency, at Roseacre Wood. That application is currently with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, so I appreciate that the Minister in the Chamber will be constrained in what he can say with regard to that site today. However, following its refusal by the local mineral rights authority and the decision going to a planning inquiry, it was then further turned down. But under permitted development that site would have been allowed to go ahead, even though one of the reasons it was turned down is that it is in an area with very narrow roads. No matter how many times the company tried to cut and recut the traffic management plan to get it through a planning inspector, it could not stand up to any form of scrutiny. I myself have gone with local people down those roads. In one case, they even hired an HGV of a similar size to those that would be taking product to and from the proposed site, and we could see that it was downright dangerous. The road was simply not designed to take either that size of vehicle or that volume of traffic.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the inconsistency in all this. Is he aware that the Government have put out a press release today, saying:
“Shale gas developers could be required to consult local communities, even before submitting a planning application, following the launch of the latest government consultation”?
This is the most inconsistent, confusing thing that I have seen in all my 35 years in Parliament. The Government clearly do not know what is going on with it. They would be much better withdrawing all of this and sitting down with experts to talk about the issues around fracking and how they will affect constituencies such as mine, but it is quite clear that they are all over the place when it comes to consulting on this industrial process.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
These concerns hold such significance that local people with local knowledge—these are not nimbys. They are people who approach the issue in a very level-headed way, but they know that some of these sites are clearly not suitable. Under permitted development rights, however, developers can rock up, develop sites in the way that I have outlined, and people will feel done to. Even if a site was considered to be suitable, there is not the level of scrutiny involved to consider operational matters, traffic management plans and matters that could perhaps alleviate some of the visual impacts. Those would all be mitigating factors under a normal planning process, but that process is not what is being put on the table under this consultation and it is one of the reasons why I strongly oppose it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that these concerns are being expressed by very ordinary general people? They are not organised protesters. They are people who live in these communities and they are fearful that their rural communities will become industrial.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In recent years, the Government have put protections into areas of outstanding natural beauty. So, if the Government recognise that these developments are not acceptable for AONBs, what about the rest of the countryside? On the point about consistency, it is very important that we approach this issue in a sensible, constructive, well-planned way, and moving to permitted development is nothing short of irresponsible and downright bonkers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. When local authorities have developed policy based on their analysis of the impact that fracking will have, surely their voice counts, particularly when it is backed up by the voices of local people overwhelmingly saying that this activity will be a disaster for their local community?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. My hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake referred to some planning experiences that arose while working with North Yorkshire County Council in Kirby Misperton. The second consultation was about bringing shale gas production sites into the NSIP regime, and I can see some of the benefits of that. One important aspect is getting consistency in decisions that are taken across the country. For example, in Kirby Misperton, there was a sensible addition: 400 metres, or half a mile, was added between the shale gas exploration site and residential properties. No such conditions were placed on either of the sites at Preston New Road, or on the application at Roseacre Wood. When planning inspectors are making those decisions—and they are different planning inspectors all the time—and those decisions are going up to the Secretary of State, inconsistent decisions are being made time after time.
Taking permitted development off the table—it is an absolutely crackers idea—I ask the Minister to look into how we can move to a planning regime where there is consistency, and where we avoid some of the decisions that go against local communities and that ignore traffic issues, population density, and the proximity of residential houses. I ask him to look at how we can come up with a workable framework. For example, there are no rules—
Order. I am hugely enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but the debate is only one hour long, and he has already had one third of the time. There are only 15 minutes of Back-Bench time remaining, and I have at least eight people seeking to speak, who are going to be speaking for under two minutes each. It is the hon. Gentleman’s debate, but he might want to think about bringing his remarks towards a close.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and on the powerful representations he is making on behalf of his community. Is he aware of the wider concern? The latest polling shows that just 18% of the public supports fracking. Many people are watching this debate, such as my constituent Etienne Stott—who is anything but ordinary—who asked me to attend the debate. He has said, “Can you tell the Minister that fracking is a terrible idea?” He does not want the Government to be able to bulldoze their misguided policy over local and global concerns. Does the hon. Gentleman understand why Mr Stott believes that?
I do indeed.
Mr Hollobone, let me plough on and bring my contribution to a conclusion. I ask the Minister to look at how consistency can be brought into the planning process. It is important that communities do not face years and years of uncertainty, and that we have consistency. It is also important that the industry knows where it stands. When that planning process is developed, it might well take lots of potential sites off the table altogether, so that the industry can stop wasting its time pursuing sites that, quite frankly, are not suitable.
Central Government’s involvement in recent years has brought some benefits. We have seen much more regulation and understanding of the industry, and I commend the Government on the creation of the Oil and Gas Authority. Indeed, that was something that I called for, campaigned for and pushed on right from the outset. We need an organisation that recognises that shale gas is very different, and that can pull together the work of the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, mineral rights authorities, BEIS, and other organisations. We need to create a level of expertise within Government that can help ensure that, if this industry develops, it does so in a safe way.
One of the changes that came in was a traffic light system—red, amber and green—and we have seen seismic events triggered at Preston New Road in recent days. Four of those events have been classed as red events, and have led to a cessation in activity. I put it to the Minister that for six years, the industry was not approaching me or anyone else to say that the threshold was far too low, but we now hear calls that a seismic event should need to be a 1.5 or a 2 to trigger a red event. I am sorry, but that ship has sailed. The industry had six years to make the case for that, and no case was made.
Bearing in mind your advice to allow other Members in, Mr Hollobone, I will conclude, because I know that many other people wish to speak in this important debate.
The debate can last until 5.30. I am obliged to call the first of the Front Bench spokespeople at seven minutes past 5 for a five-minute contribution, then a five-minute contribution from Her Majesty’s Opposition, and then a 10-minute contribution from the Minister. Mr Menzies will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Eight Members are seeking to contribute, and we have 10 minutes left, so Members basically have one minute and 30 seconds each.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will go on for as long as I can.
The Government’s proposals to fast track fracking are a shameful clampdown on local democracy and disregard the autonomy of residents and communities. Under the Government’s proposals, councils and residents will be deprived of a say on incredibly disruptive work being forced on their area. Communities have already been sidelined in the Government’s reckless pursuit of fracking. In my county of Lincolnshire, which is one of the areas most threatened by long-term fracking, £53 million of Lincolnshire County Council’s pension fund is invested in companies associated with shale gas development. The relationship between shale gas industries and Government officials at national and local levels threatens our democracy and our environment, and it must end.
Rather than imposing an unpopular and dangerous method of extraction on communities, the Government should follow Labour’s lead and commit to banning fracking outright, because shale gas is completely incompatible with this country’s climate commitments. The majority of fossil fuels will need to remain in the ground if we are to have even a chance of avoiding catastrophic temperature rises, and as a 2015 Government report found, fracking poses a uniquely damaging threat to our environment, including air pollution, water waste and earth tremors. At a time when we urgently need to transition to a green economy, the Government must abandon their senseless commitment to fracking, and stop their undemocratic assault on the power of communities and on local authorities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. My interest in this topic stems from the village of Marsh Lane in my constituency—a village of fewer than 1,000 people, who have been impacted by an application for exploratory drilling since the end of 2016. I started without any fixed view on fracking, but I stand here today to say that the proposal on permitted development and the proposal on NSIP are ludicrous and need to be stopped, and that fracking will not work in this country.
I am simply not clear from the consultation that has run over the summer about what the problem is, what we are trying to achieve, and how we will achieve it. Speaking as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the impact of shale gas, I can say that we have heard from a significant number of people that it will be technically extremely difficult, if not impossible, to confuse the planning process in the way the Government are proposing. I urge them to withdraw the proposal immediately, as did Sir Kevin Barron—he is a friend in this regard.
I am also unclear about what, as a country, we are seeking to achieve through fracking in general. The Government have not outlined any serious objectives beyond energy security, jobs and growth, and ultimately, price reductions. They have not made clear how any of those objectives can be achieved, and none of them can be achieved unless fracking is done at a scale that requires thousands of well pads, with a well pad in every village like Marsh Lane. People will not stand for it, and the proposal needs to be stopped.
My interest in this issue is that two thirds of our energy is produced from gas at present. Some 85% of households across the United Kingdom depend on gas for their heating and 65% depend on gas to cook their meals. Millions of jobs depend on having gas as an energy source, and we are increasingly dependent on imports. By 2030, 72% of our gas will have to be imported from places where we cannot guarantee supply or by routes where gas could be directed to other areas. With 50 years’ supply of gas already proven to be lying underneath the land of our country, it seems strange that we do not look for ways of ensuring we have that energy supply available to us.
I do not have time. I believe that the Government’s proposals, such as for exploratory wells to fall under permitted development, are modest. If there is to be full exploitation, it has to go through the full planning process. There are already other regulatory agencies that will oversee even the exploratory well process. On that basis, and on behalf of the millions of consumers across the United Kingdom who rely on gas, I trust that the Government’s sensible proposals will be adopted.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Menzies on securing this debate. Let me be clear on two points: first, I am intensely sceptical about whether fracking is sensible at all, but secondly, I am very clear that the expansion of permitted development to circumvent the normal planning process is disproportionate and potentially counterproductive.
Environmentally, the starting point has to be that we should seek to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We have obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008. The only argument I have heard that gives some possible justification is the potential for fracking to be a bridging fuel so that we can phase out dirty coal as quickly as possible. The problem is that the science is as yet unproven. I will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say about whether that is a credible argument. The second and perhaps even more important point is that the principle must be that we should depart from the ordinary standards of consultation with local communities only in exceptional circumstances. That hurdle has not been jumped here.
The point has already been made about the inconsistency that exists. As someone who sat on a planning committee for a very long time, I know that the most serious applications ordinarily go through the local scrutiny procedure. There is no reason not to do so in these circumstances. I suggest that not to do so is dangerous and could be highly counterproductive.
Fracking is one of the No. 1 issues that my constituents email me about. That is why I am here speaking today. I receive more emails on it than on Brexit and the tree-felling programme in Sheffield, which is another environmental issue. One person said:
“I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”
That was not one of my constituents; that was Dr Howard Zucker, the commissioner of health for New York State. The New York State Department of Health concluded that fracking should be banned due to the significant public health risks. That led to a state-wide ban.
Some of the dangers that come with fracking include earthquakes, as we saw earlier this week with the 1.1 magnitude tremor at the Little Plumpton site in Lancashire. In Oklahoma, earthquakes rose from two a year to an average of two a day. One recent study has shown that in Pennsylvania, hospital admissions for cardiology and neurology are higher in counties with more fracking. A letter to the British Medical Journal earlier this year signed by Professor Hugh Montgomery, Dr Clare Gerada, Dr Sheila Adam and several other health professionals called for fracking to be halted due to the health risks. Numerous studies have highlighting significant risks. For example, a study in December 2014 found that fracking operations use and create chemicals linked to birth defects.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. People from many different communities and, as we have seen today, from different political persuasions have been united by the proposals. In my area, Labour, Conservative and independent councillors have voted unanimously to oppose the Government’s approach on fracking. We have an application in my area from IGas that has been rejected by the council and is going to review and appeal, but at least in that case there was a local process and local people had a say. The Government seem to have decided that in future, local people will have no voice at all.
Is there not real concern about the level of seismic events in Blackpool from just one well? Imagine how many events we would have if hundreds of wells were coming through that local people had no say about. Is that not a real concern? Local people should have an opportunity to have their concerns dealt with in a legitimate, open and transparent process. If we are truly going to take back control, that should mean a genuine democratic procedure, not a stitch-up that benefits private interests.
Classifying fracking rigs under the banner of permitted development is a subversion of the planning process and therefore a subversion of local democracy. Permitted development was created for conservatories, small extensions and outhouses, none of which to the best of my knowledge have ever caused an earth tremor, yet we see fracking rigs potentially being given rights under permitted development, which is a cynical disgrace.
The subversion of the planning process works both ways, however. The proposed gas turbines at Old Hutton in my constituency are just a few hundred yards away from the local primary school. The development is just a fraction below the scale needed for national consideration. As we know, developers often do that to put pressure on a local planner, a local authority or local communities who might fear saying no because they cannot afford the cost of the appeal. When we are trying to tackle climate change and are on the cusp of catastrophic climate change, we need to ensure that all fossil fuels remain in the ground and back local authorities that oppose such things as the Old Hutton gas turbines and fracking.
It was the test drilling in my constituency that first alerted me to the concerns of my constituents. There was test drilling going on in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend Rosie Cooper, and in Formby. Many have written to me with their concerns about what goes on in the local environment and near their homes. They feel that they should have a voice and be involved in the decision making.
Sefton Council unanimously opposes fracking—there will be no fracking approved by it—but the Government have overruled. That is simply not acceptable. We need alternatives to fracking. The science is there and the climate change effects are there. Members on the Government Benches have to oppose their Government when they make cuts to renewable energy. There must be an alternative to fracking, and it has to be renewables and hydrogen. That is the way forward, not supporting fracking.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee produced a report on
If the Minister looks at the two issues together, can he not see something fundamentally contradictory about the approach? It says at one stage of the planning process that fracking is so insignificant that permitted development should be allowed, but at the next stage it says that fracking is so important that it should be treated as a national infrastructure project. Surely the two are not compatible in the same sentence. Listen to Members of Parliament and allow councils to listen to their communities.
I represent a coalfield constituency in Lancashire, and fracking is unfortunately a particular and common concern for residents. Six licences have been imposed on the people of Leigh, who have serious and legitimate concerns about the impact on their environment. Despite the sentiments we often hear from the Government, we have reason to be concerned. Earlier this year, we heard from Peter Styles, a former Government adviser, who found that fracking in former coalmining areas increases the probability of earthquakes on faults that have already been subject to movement through mining.
Given that vulnerability, I hope that the Minister will be able in his reply to detail the steps he is taking to protect our community and that he will accept the real anxiety that fracking has caused in our region, which has been left feeling singled out by the Government’s fracking regime. Ultimately, it is totally unacceptable to impose such a chaotic process on communities without giving them a say.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I have to declare a non-financial interest: I am involved with local groups in my area.
I congratulate Mark Menzies on securing this timely, topical and extremely controversial debate. He always treats everything with a great sense of humour and great knowledge. He addressed the same problems that everybody brought up. Most Members agree that there is a huge problem, and recognised the confusion surrounding such developments. I particularly liked the point about local accidental activists becoming involved and becoming the voice for their communities. That is an essential point that we should all listen to.
I do not need to tell anyone that we in Scotland have some of the world’s greatest renewable resources. It is estimated that Scotland has one quarter of the entire offshore wind energy potential of the whole of Europe, and there are the same incredible figures for tidal energy. Those elements, when harnessed, can be seen as a blessing. That gives Members an understanding of why there is overwhelming support for renewables in Scotland, and why 99% of respondents to the Scottish Government’s consultation were diametrically opposed to fracking. That consultation received more than 60,000 responses in just four months. In my constituency and in the neighbouring constituency, Linlithgow and East Falkirk, there has been a long-standing and vigorous opposition to fracking.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning both our constituencies, which have a very long history with the shale industry, going back to the 1850s, with many communities built on the areas where there are deposits. There is clearly no support for fracking in our areas. Would it not be advisable for the UK Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and place a moratorium on all fracking?
I totally agree. My hon. Friend and I have attended various meetings and screenings about the experiences of communities across the world caused by fracking. In February this year, the Dutch Government announced the end of gas exploration in the Netherlands. Companies have been given four years to end the extraction process. That decision followed a five-year moratorium on further development after Government-funded studies, importantly, revealed that drilling for gas in the natural gas fields had led to double the number of earthquakes.
I do not have time.
There was widespread property damage there and damage to flood defences. Residents have the right to sue the Government and gas field operators for damages. As of July 2017, there have been 80,000 damage claims totalling €1.2 billion.
Turning to a local debate, according to a recent article in The Blackpool Gazette, more than 30 earthquakes have been recorded in the last couple of weeks. Alarm bells should be ringing. Operations should be ceased, according to the local county council’s Labour group, which says that self-regulation is not working. I totally agree. Natascha Engel, the Government’s shale gas commissioner, has said that our laws are stricter than anywhere else in the world. I would advise Natascha to speak to the Dutch Economics Minister Eric Wiebes, who said:
“Shale gas is not an option in the Netherlands any more…It is over and done with.”
No law can be stricter than an outright ban.
Of the many events I attended in London and elsewhere before becoming an MP, I went to a screening of one film in particular that everybody should watch. It was called “The Bentley Effect” and was made by Stop Climate Chaos. The screening stands out in my mind. The film was shown to a packed hall in Falkirk Trinity Church and is about the experiences of communities in Australia. It is worth a look for anyone who has not seen it and who wants to see the impact on communities and how these things affect them immediately.
In Falkirk we were there at the very start of test drilling for fracking in Scotland. The people of Falkirk set up a properly constituted group, Concerned Communities of Falkirk, and have been running a campaign called Falkirk Against Unconventional Gas, setting out their objections in great detail. I mention that because I helped to draw up the community charter, expressing communities’ rights and responsibilities in participating in planning processes that could affect community assets.
Communities have been asking many serious questions that could be, and are, affected by fracking. I have only two uncomplicated questions, to which I would like to hear the Minister’s response. First, what would the Government do if house prices began to fall in the immediate area or the house market slowed down? Does the Minister have a plan to deal with that? Secondly, it is already known that insurance for farmers becomes unrealistic or can be denied. Can the Minister reassure farmers and growers that the Government will cover any loss of business due to perceived contamination of water to crops caused by fracking?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Mark Menzies on securing the debate, which is obviously important and timely given the number of people in the Chamber.
Labour is totally opposed to fracking, and it will be interesting to see how the Minister, when he gets to his feet, defends the indefensible. The Government are becoming increasingly isolated on the topic. The following organisations have come out against fracking: Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace, the Woodland Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Senior scientists have also come out against fracking, and there is increasing medical evidence, particularly from the US, about the negative impact that it has on people’s health.
As a Lancashire MP I was horrified by the Government’s decision to overturn Lancashire County Council’s decision to refuse permission for fracking. It flies in the face of the Government’s pretend localism agenda, and current attempts to meddle with the process do not pass the sniff test. My constituents oppose it. Perhaps the Tories should pinch another Labour policy and ban fracking.
I totally agree.
Despite the huge wealth of environmental, medical, geomorphological and other scientific evidence, the Government are ploughing ahead. Even the research of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shows that just 16% of people support fracking—the lowest figure since it started collecting data five years ago. Greenpeace has commented that public opinion on fracking is in free-fall.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government cannot have it both ways? They say that they want a national regime, but when it comes to policing the drilling of fracking in Blackpool and the Fylde, they are refusing to pay the cost fully from Home Office resources, and are leaving it to Lancashire ratepayers.
My hon. Friend makes an important point.
BEIS concludes that all the scientific evidence pertaining to possible risks of damage to the natural environment, the risk of contamination to the water supply, and safety concerns about earthquakes are to be dismissed. Try telling that to the people of Lancashire. They have had 18 earthquakes recently, each one increasing in seismic magnitude. Interestingly, the Government are telling local people who oppose fracking that they just need help to understand the process. It is exactly because they do understand it that they are concerned. The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth has said that she pities
“any local councillor who gets an application on their desk, because they will shortly have a travelling circus of protestors to deal with”.—[Official Report,
Is that really how a Minister should respond to concerns of local people? I hope that the Minister today will distance himself from those comments.
I am not sure that the planning system should allow fracking at all, but I know that the permitted development system is not appropriate for dealing with the complexities of fracking, and neither is the nationally significant infrastructure project process. Both those aspects of the planning system totally ignore the voice of local people. Greenpeace has said that the fracking industry is pulling UK energy policy in entirely the wrong direction and that the public are right to be concerned, and I agree.
Many people in the Chamber might not know that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government today issued a further consultation document on talking to people earlier in the planning process for fracking, as if that will stop them opposing it. I say to the Minister that that is just not going to cut it. The Government have to start listening to local people, change track and get planning policies that support renewables, not fracking.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend Mark Menzies for securing the debate. It is obvious that he and many Members have strong constituency interests in the topic and want to ensure, as I do, that local voices are heard as we consider the development of the shale gas industry in the UK.
No, because I want to leave time at the end for my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde.
It is clear from my hon. Friend’s speech that the recent consultations are important and have excited a strong reaction from his constituents, from him and from other hon. Members. I emphasise that no decision has been made whether to bring the proposals forward. The consultations have now closed: the Government are considering the representations made and will issue a response in due course.
The consultations are part of a range of measures to make planning decisions faster and fairer for all those affected by new shale gas development and ensure that local communities are fully involved in the planning decisions that affect them. Hon. Members will know that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so they will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment today on the detail of individual planning applications, on decisions on those applications, or on local plans. Hon. Members will also know that my remit as Housing Minister in relation to shale gas development is focused on planning policy and on delivering related manifesto commitments. However, given that many matters have been raised that are beyond my remit, I undertake to refer them to the appropriate Ministers, not least the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth.
I am afraid that I do not have time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde highlighted the importance of community engagement in the planning process. I reassure him that we remain fully committed to ensuring that local communities are fully involved in planning decisions that affect them, and to making planning decisions faster and fairer. Those are long-standing principles and I am adamant that we should stick to them. However, we understand that communities feel that they are often not consulted closely enough before planning applications are submitted to the local planning authority by developers. As my hon. Friend highlighted, that can lead to opposition to developments and a longer application process.
Engagement with communities at the pre-application stage gives local people a say earlier in the planning process and makes developers aware of issues of importance to the community that may need to be resolved. The planning system in the UK already provides an extensive legislative framework for community involvement, but I believe there is scope to do more. We have therefore published a consultation on whether applicants should be required to conduct a pre-application consultation with the local community prior to submitting a planning application for shale gas development. We believe that that could further strengthen the role that local people play in the process, and we are keen to hear the voices of industry and of communities. The consultation also seeks views on the process of community consultation that should be required and on the stages of shale gas development that should be covered. It closes on
Let me move on to the potential changes to permitted development rights. Over the summer, we consulted on whether permitted development rights should be expanded to include shale gas exploration development, and on the circumstances in which those proposals might be appropriate. I make it clear that any potential permitted development right granted for shale gas exploration would not apply to hydraulic fracturing operations or to the production stage of shale gas extraction. I also emphasise that any permitted development right covers only the planning aspects of the development; it does not remove requirements under the regulatory regimes of the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority.
It is important to note that all permitted development rights contain specific exemptions, conditions and restrictions to control and mitigate the impact of the development and protect local amenity. Any potential permitted development right for shale gas exploration would be no exception; for example, it could specify limits on the height of any structure, areas where a permitted development right would not apply, or noise and operation controls. The consultation has sought views on that issue.
In relation to the role that local communities and mineral planning authorities can play within the permitted development rights regime, our consultation also sought views on whether MPAs should be able to conduct a prior approval process to consider specific elements of a development before works can proceed. Such a process can include a requirement for public consultation. It would also enable local consideration of key matters.
There is currently no commercial production from any hydraulically fractured shale gas resources in the UK. However, we believe that it is vital to look ahead and understand how best to manage planning permissions for a future state in which shale gas is produced. We therefore also consulted over the summer on whether the production phase of shale gas developments should be brought within the nationally significant infrastructure projects, which many hon. Members have referred to. The consultation particularly sought to understand what the appropriate triggers and criteria could be for including production projects in the NSIP regime.
I emphasise that community engagement is fundamental to the NSIP regime’s operation. Pre-application consultation with the local community and with local authorities is a statutory requirement. Developers are required to consult extensively before an application is submitted and considered, and where the consultation has not been carried out in line with the statutory requirements, the Planning Inspectorate can refuse to accept an application. Local authorities and communities also have the right to be involved during the examination of a project; they can set out their views in written representations, which will then be taken into account in decision making.
Both consultations ran for 14 weeks and closed on
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde again for securing this valuable debate. We remain fully committed to ensuring that local communities are properly involved in planning decisions that affect them, and to making planning decisions faster and fairer. As part of that, as I said, we have launched a further consultation today on whether applicants should be required to conduct pre-application consultation with the local community. We have also delivered on our manifesto promises to consult on how best to develop our planning processes for exploration and production of shale gas development while ensuring that communities remain fully involved. We are considering the responses from the consultations and will respond in due course.
I thank the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson, Dr Blackman-Woods, for the way in which they have approached the debate. To me, the most important thing is making sure that local people’s voices are heard. It is also important that we have a planning system that works. At the moment, there is a concern that local voices may not be heard.
Not at the moment; I am very conscious that I took a lot of interventions earlier, and I want to draw my speech to a close.
It is very important that we have a shale gas planning system that is functional, that works, that allows people to know where they stand, and that is not full of the kind of inconsistencies that we are currently seeing. I do not believe that having application after application determined by the Planning Inspectorate is the route forward. The planning system is far from perfect; in some cases it is causing extreme distress to local communities such as Roseacre Wood, which still has a decision hanging over it after more than four years.
I want a planning system that takes account of wider issues such as traffic management plans and proliferation, so that we do not get a high density of well pads popping up across an area. I want a planning system that recognises, as has happened in Kirby Misperton, that a limit has to be a set with respect to residential properties. We need to put such restrictions on the industry because there are swathes of the country that may well contain shale gas but that are not appropriate for developing it.
I promise the Minister that I will continue to work constructively with the Government, as I have over the past eight years, to make sure that the voices of local people are heard and that decisions are taken in a positive and sensible way. In that light, I have to tell him that moving to permitting development sits so uncomfortably. It jars with everything that I believe in and hope the Government believe in.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth recently admitted that she had not yet visited a fracking site? The people I represent in Barnsley want their voices heard. They do not want fracking; they want the Government to listen to them.
I am conscious of time, so I will let those comments stand.
I will finish by asking the Government to listen to the views of local people and accept that the current planning system is dysfunctional when it comes to shale gas applications. I will also say that Sammy Wilson was brave to advocate shale gas; as I said at the outset, there are many views in this debate. However, the one thing that is very clear is that permitted development is not the way forward. The planning system needs to be fixed, and I hope the Minister is the man to do it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered local involvement in shale gas development.