Fracking: Local Consent — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall on 15th November 2022.

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[Relevant documents: e-petition 608745, End the ban on fracking, and e-petition 614611, Keep The Fracking Ban.]

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 9:30 am, 15th November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered local consent for fracking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank colleagues who have sponsored the debate, particularly my hon. Friend Wera Hobhouse, who joins me here. I was grateful to receive cross-party support for my application from colleagues from six different parties, on both sides of the House, but it is a little disappointing that nobody from the Government Benches has joined us today.

I made the application for the debate to the Backbench Business Committee some six weeks—and one Prime Minister—ago, at a time when the Government had lifted the moratorium on fracking, claiming that it was necessary to increase our domestic fossil fuel output to cut costs and increase energy security.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I very much welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it. I just want to make it clear that there is somebody from the Government Front Bench here: I am sitting here and listening carefully to everything she says.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I thank the Minister for that intervention, but I was referring to Back Benchers in my previous comment.

The former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Mr Rees-Mogg, argued that fracking would only happen with local consent, but repeatedly declined to outline the detail on how consent might be obtained and whether it was synonymous with compensation. As I have said before, compensation is not consent, and I firmly believe that affected communities would oppose fracking in their area.

Since then, the current Prime Minister has U-turned on that U-turn. That is welcome, but with much of the Government’s 2019 manifesto abandoned, the Prime Minister pledging his own support for fracking over the summer and the Conservatives having voted to allow fracking just one month ago, I believe it is worthwhile obtaining some clarification from the Minister on the matter. I ask him to guarantee that fracking without consent is never forced on our communities, either in my constituency or anywhere else in Britain. We must prevent the Government from making yet another U-turn.

There is no mandate for fracking. It was outlawed in the manifesto of every major party in 2019 and only a tiny minority appear to believe that there is a benefit. The Liberal Democrat manifesto mentions “banning fracking for good.” “Permanently ban fracking”—the Labour party manifesto. The Conservative manifesto states,

“We will not support fracking”, and the Green party manifesto reads

“Ban fracking, and other unconventional forms of fossil fuel extraction”.

Some 90% of the electorate voted for one of those parties. It is clear that people do not want fracking, and there are very good reasons why.

Britain cannot produce enough gas from fracking to reduce the global gas price, so it will not reduce our energy bills, especially when electricity from renewable sources is the cheapest form of energy we can produce. Investing in renewables—not only the cheapest, but the cleanest form of energy—is the best way to bring down our bills and our carbon emissions. As COP27 meets in Sharm El Sheikh and the lack of progress on the climate emergency is brought to international attention, it would be disastrous for the UK to start novel types of fossil fuel extraction. We need to find ways to keep fossil fuels in the ground, not waste effort looking for ever more inventive ways of extracting them.

The fundamental scientific evidence surrounding fracking and its safety has not changed either. Fracking is still unsafe and unproven. Last month the British Geological Survey refused to endorse fracking as a safe practice in its report for the Government. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has previously warned that fracking poses a “risk to groundwater” and a

“risk of polluting surface water”, and that the need for considerable quantities of water for fracking

“could pose localised risks to water supplies”.

This follows one of the driest summers ever; we cannot afford to take the risk.

Research commissioned by the Liberal Democrats has revealed that fracking caused 192 earthquakes in 182 days at one active site in the UK. That is more than one a day. A 2.9 magnitude earthquake was recorded near Cuadrilla’s site near Blackpool in 2019. Residents reported their shock at houses being shaken for two to three seconds. A report by the Oil and Gas Authority said it was not possible to predict the probability or size of tremors caused by the practice, so people do not want fracking for good reason. When they have had the opportunity to express their opposition, they have done so in numbers.

When fracking was last proposed at Dudleston Heath— a small village near Ellesmere in my constituency—a huge number of residents rapidly organised opposition to the proposed site. One constituent who led the protest said that they

“crammed about 300 people into the village hall” in a public meeting about fracking. At the end of the meeting, a show of hands was requested, and he reported that

“everyone bar one person was against” fracking.

Lovely as they are, I doubt whether the views of people in Dudleston Heath and Criftins are unique, and every MP in a potentially impacted area has had countless emails from constituents opposing the plans. Furthermore, the huge number of well-organised grassroots community groups that have cropped up across the country is evidence of a groundswell of opposition to the fracking plans.

We also saw well-organised opposition on a national level in the well-publicised campaigns by organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Friends of the Earth, signalling the depth of support among many who do not live anywhere near one of the proposed sites.

In North Shropshire, a licence exists covering a small area of land by the Cheshire border, but whose impact zone extends to the market towns of Whitchurch and Market Drayton. There was huge concern in October when the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, said in response to an urgent question that

“the moratorium on the extraction of shale gas is being lifted”.

He also said, in response to a question from me:

“Compensation and consent become two sides of the same coin. People will be able to negotiate the level of compensation and it will be a matter for the companies to try and ensure widespread consent by offering a compensation package that is attractive.”—[Official Report, 22 September 2022; Vol. 719, c. 790-95.]

I find the suggestion that anyone will agree to something if they are paid enough slightly odd, although perhaps I am being a little idealistic, but I also believe that if the Conservatives refuse to impose an outright ban on fracking, a valid consent process must be put in place now to protect local communities in the event that the moratorium is lifted in future.

I propose a local referendum process—not just for those in the area covered by the fracking licence, but for the people living in the surrounding impact zone. When a council was approached for planning permission, it would have to gain the express consent of those in the affected areas before granting such permission. That should follow a period in which the full facts of the impact on the area were not only publicly available, but actively communicated to those affected. The planning inspector should not be able to overrule the decision reached in the local referendum and the subsequent council planning committee decision.

Local councils have been impacted by the cost of living crisis and are struggling to balance their budgets as it is, with many reporting financial distress, so the cost of administering those public information campaigns and subsequent referendums should not fall on the local council, or indeed the local taxpayer, but should be met by the company making the planning application. An application to exploit the resources of the British countryside should in no way be foisted on the taxpayer, but should be met by the companies that are making huge profits as a result of the global gas price. Will the Minister comment specifically on those suggestions for safeguarding communities that could be impacted by fracking in the event of a further Government U-turn?

Local communities affected by fracking have already expressed their opposition to the lifting of the moratorium; so, too, have the vast majority of the British people, who in 2019 voted for parties that opposed fracking in some form or another. Fracking simply will not bring down our energy bills, and if we are to address the energy problems the country faces, we must rapidly invest in renewable energy sources. The science has not changed either, and fracking is just as unsafe and unreliable as it was three years ago. I would welcome the Government’s confirmation of that point.

Given that the Conservative moratorium has been demonstrated to be fragile and temporary in nature, and that the Prime Minister pledged to overturn it in the summer leadership campaign, and given that Conservative MPs voted in favour of lifting the moratorium only a month ago, it is essential that a watertight process of local consent be put in place. If Conservative MPs will not pledge to honour their manifesto commitment and keep the ban on fracking, we must safeguard our communities from this unnecessary, disruptive and dangerous practice.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:40 am, 15th November 2022

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. You are a friend and colleague, but also a very impartial Chair. Everybody is impartial, by the way, but you are impartial in giving me the same chance as everybody else and not a better chance—that is the point I am trying to make.

In the time that Helen Morgan has been in the House, she has shown that she looks after and tries hard for her constituents. Today she has clearly set the scene for the fracking debate in her constituency and across the whole United Kingdom.

I had hoped that there would be more Members here; I suppose that the debate has moved on because the Government have clarified their position. We are talking about something that still scares and alarms people, and I will share my perspective. I agree with the views of the hon. Member for North Shropshire, and I know she will go above and beyond to fight for her constituents on the issue, as she does vocally in the main Chamber and has today in Westminster Hall.

Some have seen fracking as a way to instil our self-sufficiency. I look forward to hearing the views of others, including the Minister. I am aware of a couple of fracking incidents in Northern Ireland, of which my hon. Friend Mr Campbell will also be aware. The Democratic Unionist party has taken a strong stance on the issue by opposing fracking across Northern Ireland. One example is Belcoo in Fermanagh, where the opposition of local people was clear, and fracking has therefore moved no further. I think there might also have been a fracking application near Larne; you might have been at the same meeting, Mr Paisley. That is my recollection, although I am not sure whether it is entirely accurate, but, again, that application never went anywhere. I am very clear where we are and what we hope to achieve in this debate.

On local consent for fracking, I cannot agree more with the hon. Member for North Shropshire, who set the scene admirably. If fracking is to go ahead, the principle of consent goes without saying. The Government have committed to ensuring that local people will have the final say on what happens. I am reassured by that; the people I have spoken to are clear that they do not want it in their areas, and therefore it will never happen. I am sure the Minister will confirm that. I also very much look forward to the contribution of the shadow Minister, Kerry McCarthy, who is a vocal spokesperson on the issue. I know that her comments will go along the lines of other Members’.

Before 2019 the Government required operators to obtain consent from the Secretary of State prior to commencing drilling or operations. That would be approved only if local planning authorities granted a petrol licence and environmental permits, which meant that local people always had input into the planning application process—but they did not have the last word, which is why I welcome what the Government have said. Fracking requires rigorous paperwork, but the most important aspect is the local consent of communities who would be directly impacted by fracking. I have received large numbers of emails and letters on the matter from all parts of the United Kingdom. We are in the mother of Parliaments, so we meet lots of people from across the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and they tell me the same thing: they are concerned about fracking.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend touches on the two key issues: the safety of any extraction process and local consent. Does he agree that if any extraction method, whatever it might be, falls on those two bases, no Government should permit it to proceed?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I fully and wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Member for North Shropshire referred to safety and danger in her contribution, which was significant. That cannot be ignored, and I hope to comment on it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry is absolutely right about where we are; the DUP has opposing fracking in its manifesto for Northern Ireland.

For the family who live in their ancestors’ home, with great memories and familial traditions, to be told that their home may be affected will not be welcome news. If there is any possibility of hydraulic fracturing taking place, families at risk of facing housing damage must be offered compensation of the equivalent value of their property, to give them the option to move. There are obvious concerns about the impact of fracking on properties and the surroundings.

It is important that the full list of implications and possible risks is given to any property area to let people know the “what ifs”. The Truss Administration did not clarify what was meant by “local consent”. Would it involve a vote, numerous consultations, or financial incentives from larger energy companies? We and, most importantly, our constituents are in the dark. People are worried about subsidence, sinkholes, rates, energy prices, and the value of their house dropping, so when it comes to fracking issues, locals must have the last say.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire and my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry referred to safety and danger, and I think many people looking at fracking see the dangers very clearly. With that in mind, I would feel reassured if the last word—the only word that really matters—went to locals in the form of local consent, and if that were in any legislation the Government may bring forward. There would need to be clear and concrete evidence of the benefits of fracking in a particular area before any decision was made on the possibility of drilling, and the consent principle has to be key to that.

There needs to be intense focus on the planning system to ensure that a fracking development is an acceptable use of the land in question, as there may be better uses for that land. There is big demand for housing, especially social housing, here on the mainland and across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is where the money should be spent and the focus should be.

Concerns have been expressed that it will be down to the fracking companies to assess local community consent. I do not think that it should be. I cannot agree with fracking companies assessing local community consent; there has to be an independent body, otherwise there is potential for bias and persuasion. Should it be deemed that fracking would be beneficial in an area, the local consent process must be carried out by an independent individual or body. I therefore seek an assurance from the Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect. The question is not just whether there is local consent; if someone is to carry out a survey or questionnaire, that process must be independent.

There is a range of views and information to assess when coming to any decision on fracking. First, if there is no hard evidence that fracking will provide some sort of self-sufficiency to an area, there is no need for it to be done at all. Secondly, local communities’ consent should be at the forefront of the discussion and they should have the last word in any process. I thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire for ensuring that that is the case, and it will continue to be the case for the debate on fracking, whenever it reappears, whether that be in the main Chamber, here or through questions.

There is a real consensus across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to oppose fracking in principle, but writing into any discussions and legislation local consent—that local communities get the last and final word—would give us protection.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 9:49 am, 15th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I echo the words of Jim Shannon about my hon. Friend Helen Morgan being such a powerful advocate for her local communities in North Shropshire. I thank her for bringing this crucial and serious debate to the Chamber today.

When the disastrous and short-lived previous Government announced that they would lift the moratorium on fracking, they never gave a single thought to our local communities. They provided no answer to how they would get local consent. Many people, including many MPs, were outraged that fracking would be forced upon them once again. I echo my hon. Friend’s observation that it is disappointing that there are not more Conservative Back Benchers here to voice their discontent about the U-turn that the Government made only a month ago, and to make their disappointment and outrage known to the Government so that they will never dare to bring back any such proposals. We can never rest until fracking is banned.

Fracked fuel is a fossil fuel. Fracking flies in the face of our net zero commitment. The Government’s own experts said that seismic activity caused by hydraulic fracking was not safe. Fracking has been linked to multiple health defects. It is disgraceful that the Government even considered lifting the ban and putting the population at risk.

I would like to set the record straight. When the former Business Secretary, Mr Rees-Mogg, so grandly declared that his local community would welcome fracking, that was not so. There was a petition going round Bath and North East Somerset asking for a ban on fracking. Let us put the record straight: local communities in Bath and North East Somerset did not welcome fracking.

The Government’s flirtation with fracking proves their unserious approach to climate change and the environment. I am afraid that will not change under the new Prime Minister. When he was Chancellor, the Prime Minister introduced a windfall tax incentivising firms to invest in fossil fuel extraction. As Prime Minister, he had to be dragged to COP27. Those are not the actions of someone who will treat the climate emergency with the urgency it demands.

Investing heavily in renewables is clearly the answer to the UK’s energy crisis. However, securing local consent is vital, even for popular solutions such as renewables. Local communities must be brought on board for the net zero transition; after all, they are the ones who will have to bear a lot of the costs, host new infrastructure in their neighbourhoods, and alter their routines and behaviours. Without that, there is a risk that people will not welcome or accept the necessary changes. The consequences of that would make our progress to net zero much lengthier, more costly and more contested. It would be less inclusive, equitable and environmentally sustainable.

Local consent is what we Liberal Democrats always ask for. The most successful net zero projects have local consent. Where possible, should projects not be undertaken by local people with a stake in them? Local communities are best placed to provide detailed knowledge of their local area. They have expert understanding of how their area functions and what their communities value.

The Government must remove the shackles from local authorities and give them the powers and funding they need as partners in reaching net zero. In Bath and North East Somerset, domestic and business solar capacity has doubled since our council declared a climate emergency in 2019. These local initiatives should be encouraged by the Government but, instead, they are being restricted by hollowed-out local authority budgets and our planning laws.

Community energy projects must also be encouraged. They allow people to purchase clean electricity directly from a local supply company or co-operative. That ensures that every pound spent on powering our homes or cars is recycled back into the local community. Energy projects should be carried by our local communities, and they are the ones who need to provide consent, whatever the solutions. Community energy is one of the few tried and tested means of engaging people in energy systems. In my constituency, Bath and West Community Energy has installed enough renewable energy to power nearly 4,500 homes. I take this opportunity—it is a good opportunity, because we are talking about local consent and local energy provision—to ask the Minister again whether he will back the Local Electricity Bill, which is supported by more than half of MPs across the House.

Achieving local consent is crucial if we are serious about meeting our net zero targets. Gaining local consent for fracking was never going to happen. However, local communities passionately support renewable projects. They just need the Government to empower them to deliver those projects—and we need a Government that finally bans fracked fuel, which flies in the face of our net zero commitments.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 9:55 am, 15th November 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and to see the Minister. I do not think we have gone head to head across the Chamber before. It is a little disappointing that the Minister for Climate, Graham Stuart, is not here, although I appreciate why he is not. The last time we faced each other in a fracking debate, which was in the main Chamber, the outcome was suboptimal from his point of view because it led to chaos and the resignation of the Prime Minister the next morning. I suspect that today will be a rather more sedate affair. We cannot expect that sort of excitement every day, although, given how eventful politics has been lately, it would not surprise me if something imploded later.

It is also a pleasure to see Jim Shannon. It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without him. I think he came down against fracking, but he made a wide-ranging speech on the issue. Wera Hobhouse was right to say that there is no support, or very little support, for fracking in Bath and North East Somerset. I say that as an MP whose constituency neighbours that of Mr Rees-Mogg, who said he would be happy to have fracking in his back garden—his back garden is probably big enough for that. Beyond that, as the hon. Lady said, there is very little support.

As I have said, the last time we discussed fracking it was pretty chaotic. The former Prime Minister made lifting the ban on fracking a cornerstone of her short-lived Administration. I still do not see why she did that. It was a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment to keep the moratorium unless the science proved otherwise. The science did not change because the geology did not change—a recent expert report by the British Geological Survey said that that was the case—so fracking was still seen as unsafe, it was clearly incompatible with our climate obligations, and it was deeply unpopular.

During that debate in the main Chamber, Back-Bench Conservative MPs came out to declare their opposition to fracking. They did not vote against it on that occasion, but it was clear that they were unhappy. If this debate had happened a few weeks ago—I suspect the application was made back then—this place would have been teeming with MPs from across the House, including Conservatives, wanting to make sure that their opposition to fracking was on the record. I think that now they probably want the issue to just go away—they want to pretend that the last few weeks did not happen and that there was never any question of the ban being lifted—and that is why they are not here today.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Does the hon. Lady agree that we must continue to put pressure on the Government to end fracking once and for all or it might come back under the next Government—and who knows when that will come along?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Exactly. Because it is not clear why the last Prime Minister felt obliged to lift the ban on fracking, despite all the arguments against it, we will always have that scintilla of doubt that it has not completely gone away. There was no logic to her decision, so—who knows?—perhaps equally illogical decisions will be made in the future. The current Prime Minister has not embraced the moratorium on fracking out of any green credentials of his own. It is clearly an issue of party management. It is very sensible to reverse the U-turn and go back to the 2019 manifesto, but during the summer leadership election, he actively supported the return of fracking in areas where there was local support.

The Prime Minister also came out against solar power. I do not suppose the Minister is in a position to reply, but I am trying to find out through parliamentary questions whether there has been a change to the mooted policy of the previous Administration—we almost need names for each of the Administrations, because it gets confusing talking about the former this and former that—to bring other, less fertile agricultural land into the “best and most versatile land” category, meaning a ban on solar on that reclassified land. Having talked to the National Farmers Union and other farmers, I hope that that policy has now been reversed. Obviously, we do not want the entire countryside to be covered with solar panels, but we do want to see them in the right places. Solar can also be mixed with farming, as farmers can grow things under solar panels in some cases. I would like to think that there is now, under this Administration, more support for solar on our farmland.

I would say that the policy on onshore wind is still unclear, but actually, when the Prime Minister was pressed on it at Prime Minister’s questions, it seemed clear that the ban remains. Considering that there were plans to allow fracking, I cannot see why onshore wind would be seen as less attractive than that. As I said, the moratorium on fracking was a 2019 manifesto commitment. The problem is that there is nothing to stop the Secretary of State taking unilateral action to lift the moratorium without any oversight or scrutiny from the House or input from local communities.

Our energy policy should be decided by what is best to bring down energy bills, what is best for our energy security and environment and, of course, whether there is public consent. In all those cases, it is clear that fracking should not be on the table. Labour has been clear that we want a full, permanent ban on fracking, and we want it now. It is unlikely, but, if the Minister was able to commit to a ban, I am sure that he would make not just those present but a lot of his Back Benchers happy.

In the debate on bringing back fracking, it was difficult to work out what the then Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset—or, indeed, a number of other Ministers—meant when he said that the Government would allow fracking only if there was “local consent”. Lots of Government Back Benchers pressed him during that debate on what exactly that meant and it has come up on other occasions in the Chamber. Particularly worryingly, it almost seemed as though it was not really about asking people whether they consented; it was not a local referendum or actually going into a community and asking people if they support fracking. There was quite a lot of talk about compensation being offered, and it almost sounded as though the plan was to buy off local people, and perhaps the council that would issue planning permission, rather than speaking to individuals who would be affected. That would clearly be unacceptable. If we were going back to lifting the ban and allowing fracking—there are so many double negatives in this debate; we are going round in circles with all the U-turns—what does the Minister envisage asking for local consent to look like?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

In my contribution, I made the point that it cannot be the energy companies themselves holding the discussions with local people because, by their very nature, they will have a bias; it has to be an independent body or person going door to door collecting opinions from individuals one to one. In that way, I think a very clear opinion would be drawn. We almost know the end result, but that must be the way to do it.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

That is the case, is it not? It seems like a futile exercise—I do not think there is any community in the country that actually wants fracking to happen—but the hon. Gentleman is quite right that the energy companies, which have a vested interest in fracking, cannot be in charge of such an exercise, because it would be skewed.

If fracking was treated in the same way as this Government have treated onshore wind, which is a genuinely popular and clean source of energy, a single local objection could be enough to sink proposals. It is very easy to stop onshore wind, although, as we know, the Government currently have a policy not to proceed with it anyway.

No matter how the Government try to bend the definition of local consent, the reality is that fracking is deeply unpopular. The Government’s own polling showed that only 17% of people support fracking, and I suspect that most of them do not want it in their backyard. I think there was a Conservative Minister in the Lords who talked about how fracking was not suitable for the south but suggested that it would be welcomed up in the “desolate” north. I suspect some of those 17% want fracking somewhere, but not where they live.

From the polling on other energy sources, 74% support new onshore wind, yet the Government are sticking with the ban on it. Some 75% oppose the Government’s banning solar panels on farmland, but, as I have said, the current Prime Minister still seems very negative on both of those proposals. My point is that this Government’s energy policy appears to be inherently biased towards fossil fuels. The Minister looked slightly shocked at that, but the Government have just issued 100 new oil and gas licences: if that is not bias towards fossil fuels, I do not know what is. Between a ban on onshore wind, lots of scepticism about solar, issuing licences for oil and gas exploration, and at one point trying to bring back fracking, I think it is very clear where the bias lies.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Is this not also a sign that the Government are entirely behind the curve? When fracking was mooted a decade ago as a transition fuel, it might have been something that could be considered, because the legislation at the time was aiming only for 80% renewable energy by 2050. Since 2018, we have known that we need to get to 100%, so transition fuels are a complete nonsense. Does the hon. Lady agree?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I absolutely do agree. Fracking is certainly not greener and, as well as all the other reasons why we oppose it, it is not a cheaper source of energy, either.

The Minister for Climate, the right hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, tried to gaslight the British public with his recent claim that fracking is green. He has also tried to say that oil and gas exploration in the North sea is green because the alternative is importing it, so we would have the extra costs of importing from elsewhere. Clearly, the green alternative is renewables. I would ask the Minister for Climate why, if he was right to say that fracking is a green option, it is opposed by so many of his colleagues, including Alok Sharma, who was the President of COP26, and Chris Skidmore, who is conducting the net zero review. Extracting fossil fuels will never be green, and I hope that the Minister who is here today will make that clear when he replies to the debate.

Right now, there is immense pressure at COP27 to secure genuinely ambitious agreements to leave fossil fuels in the ground for good. Sending a clear message about our commitment to net zero and the move away from fossil fuels is vital, but the Government have been sending out such mixed signals—as has been said, the Prime Minister was not even going to go to COP, and had to be dragged there. That sends a terrible message about our global leadership. If our climate commitments are called into question, how can we expect other people to step up to the plate? It is time to end any doubts about the UK’s commitment to climate action. Listening to communities and implementing a permanent ban on fracking, and bringing back onshore wind and solar, would be a good start.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 10:08 am, 15th November 2022

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, in the absence of the Minister for Climate, my right hon. Friend Graham Stuart, who is dealing with these very issues at COP27 today. I congratulate Helen Morgan; she is a very exciting new Member of Parliament, and she has done well today in bringing this issue to the attention of the House.

As somebody who was as concerned as everyone else here that the very short-lived Administration that took office in September flirted with the idea of lifting the 2019 Conservative moratorium on fracking, I am delighted to say that that policy has very clearly been reversed by the Prime Minister. To say that this horse has bolted is to liken Shergar to a beach pony; the issue is well and truly put to bed. I will deal with the points that hon. Members have made, but it gives me great pleasure to make it very clear that this Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Secretary of State, and the Minister for Climate—in fact, this whole Government—have returned to our position in the 2019 manifesto, which was an effective moratorium on fracking.

Furthermore—this may go some way towards answering the point made by Kerry McCarthy—Ministers are taking a presumption against issuing any further hydraulic fracking consents. I accept that for a month or two, all sorts of horses were running wild around the beach, but the position is absolutely clear. For those listening, and for the 18,000 people who signed the petition, let me be very clear: the Government are not about to open up the UK fracking market. We are back to the position that we set out in 2019.

I thank those who have spoken today. It is a great pleasure to see Jim Shannon; I know I am in the right room when I see him here, assiduous as ever. I also thank the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Bristol East. I will deal with the points that have been made and with the broader context in which we need to view this issue. I will say something about the energy supply market, something about gas and something about local consent. Members have raised some important points about the role and the mechanisms of local consent in these sectors, in relation not only to gas but to all critical national infrastructure and other renewables.

Let me start by setting the scene. As someone who has been in this House for 12 years and has been watching it for about 30, I think it is fair to say—I can see that colleagues around the House feel the same way—that, as a country, for decades we have rather taken energy for granted. Until about 15 years ago we presumed it was something that would always be there, very cheaply, at the flick of a switch, and we did not have to worry too much about it. That position has changed, rather belatedly but dramatically, in the last 15 years. I pay tribute to the last climate change Minister in the Labour Government before 2010, who started a profound acceleration of our leadership on net zero. I am proud that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition between 2010 and 2015, and then the Conservative Government, have taken that forward. Our leadership on net zero has come on leaps and bounds.

The scale of that success bears repeating. Since 1990, we have managed to grow the economy by about 40% and the net zero sector by around 70%. We have managed to demonstrate that it is possible to have green growth. There has been extraordinary progress. I accept, as I think everyone does, that as a country we were late to this. However, low-carbon electricity now gives us around half of our total generation, we have installed 99% of our solar capacity since 2010, the onshore wind industry is already generating over 14 GW and is happily accepted around the country—onshore wind is cheap—and we have put £30 billion of domestic investment into the green industrial revolution. Those are figures that, even 15 years ago, one might have been surprised to see. This country is genuinely leading in making the big transitional investments to move to net zero.

Of course, in the last 18 months, the pandemic and the appalling situation in Ukraine have triggered a cost of living crisis and, in particular, a cost of energy crisis globally. That has reminded us of the importance of having resilient supply chains and ensuring that we are not vulnerable to hostile actors internationally, or to supply chains in which we can be held to ransom.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The Minister talks about the UK’s leadership in renewables, which is positive. Should there not be a Government ambition to be an exporter of renewable energy, since we have so many opportunities to share that with Europe? Is that not a brilliant opportunity when we are talking about global Britain and its leadership in renewables?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Indeed, that is why the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson, used to refer to the southern North sea as the Saudi Arabia of wind energy. That is precisely our ambition. First, we need to ensure that we can meet our own domestic energy market needs.

The hon. Member for Bath makes a crucial point for me very well, which is that we are in a global market and global energy demand over the next 20, 30 and 40 years will rise. It is not just a question of moving our existing energy demands to renewable supplies, vital though that is; it is also about developing the renewables of the future and contributing globally. As Minister for science, research, technology and innovation, I can say that we are investing heavily in small nuclear, in fusion, in marine and in geothermal, because we see a huge opportunity for the UK to be in the vanguard of the renewables and clean energies of tomorrow.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for his detailed, helpful and comprehensive response. I read in the paper over the weekend about some of the innovation across the world on which we can interact with others. I understand that Morocco has an abundance of green energy, and, if the press are correct, that discussions are taking place between the UK Government and the Moroccan Government to export that green energy to the United Kingdom by an undersea channel. Is the Minister aware of that and if he is, could he elaborate on it?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Member has made an important point. I will not attempt to answer it because I am not the Minister for Climate, but I will flag it with him and ask that the hon. Member gets a proper answer.

As well as our groundbreaking leadership in the transition of our existing energy system to net zero supply, we are investing heavily in the technologies of tomorrow to ensure that we can be a global player in the great challenges we face. Agriculture and transport are the two biggest industries after energy that generate and use the most carbon and greenhouse gases, and we are hugely advanced in research and development in those sectors. I say that as a former Minister for future transport and for agritech. This country has a huge opportunity as part of the science superpower mission to generate solutions that we can export around the world, and I am proud of what we are doing.

Given the crisis in Ukraine and the extraordinary pressures on everybody this year when it comes to paying their energy bills, the Government made a huge commitment to cap those energy bills and provide support, but it is right that our customers—the constituents we serve, taxpayers, households and businesses—would expect any responsible Government to look at whether there are easily and quickly accessible supplies of clean gas in the UK that could be extracted in a sensible and environmentally satisfactory way. People would think it was daft and weird if we were not prepared even to look at doing so in such a context. But let me be clear: that cannot in any situation go against our own environmental commitments, the environmental advice we have received or, crucially, local consent. As others have said, the British Geological Survey has made it crystal clear that there is no evidence to suggest that fracking can be pursued in any way that would pass that test. Again, I am delighted to repeat how pleased I personally am that we—the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Government —have made it clear that we are back to our 2019 effective moratorium.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Given that the Government are happy to express their commitment to stopping fracking, would they be willing to put that into legislation so that we do not always have a shadow of doubt hanging over us that the issue might raise its ugly head again?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I hear the hon. Member; she has made her point and put it on the record. I am slightly adverse to the idea that we put into legislation every single thing that we are not going to do. We would be here an awfully long time to reassure everyone. I am not sure that that is a sustainable way for Parliament to proceed. The Prime Minister made it clear through the written ministerial statement to the House, and the sector and community generally have understood that the idea mooted in September is now dead and buried, and we will not go back there.

I turn to the important point regarding local consent, which a number of colleagues have made. There is little I can say about pockets of local consent in particular areas. With regard to the situation in North Shropshire, in response to which the hon. Member for North Shropshire partly brought forward this debate, the licence for fracking that would potentially impact the Market Drayton and Whitchurch area is an indicative licence. No work has been done and no application for work has been received. In the light of the announcement of the return to the 2019 position, it is difficult to envisage any situation in which that licence could be of any use. I reassure her that we are not expecting any activity in that area.

We all—and the Government certainly—recognise that community support is important. We generally want planning to be something that is done through and with local communities, not to them. Some sort of balance is always required. Obviously, there is a huge difference between a loft extension and the siting of a huge piece of critical national infrastructure. However, a good developer will and should always engage with the local community and listen to real concerns.

I have seen consultations in my area where concerns have been expressed but have not been listened to or reflected in the proposals, and no change has been made to anything that was promoted. That often drives the view of sham consultations, in which people are not being heard. We need to be wary of assuming a one-size-fits-all approach would work for local support. Difficult though it is to see how this would take off, we have left open the possibility that if an area—north, south, south-west, Scotland or Northern Ireland—found itself sitting on an easy and geologically stable opportunity to exploit shale gas and came to the Government with strong local consent, strong environmental data and a strong business and environmental case, the Government would consider it. That is very different from us setting an ambition and encouraging this industry around the country.

My constituency is home to the first two major substations, connecting the first two offshore wind farms in the southern North sea. As the local constituency MP, I watched as the scheme promoter came forward with a proposal for a substation, which I naively thought 10 years ago was a thing the size of a shipping container that hums behind a yew bush, but this thing is the size of Wembley stadium and its proposed location was on top of a hill, so the whole of Norfolk could see this huge piece of industrial development. I was not against hosting the substation in Mid Norfolk, but through decent consultation with the company, we ended up siting it in low-lying ground, out of sight, with minimal light and visual impact.

For our thanks, we have had another one; we now have two next to each other in Mid Norfolk. It is critical infrastructure, although if we were better connecting all the offshore wind farms, we could reduce the need for individual substations and cabling all across the Norfolk and Suffolk coast. The Minister for Climate is looking into that, because it would support the infrastructure for trading out of the southern North sea. I have seen at first hand that communities are often not properly consulted. As other hon. Members have said, without in any way opening up the risk of community benefit creating an opportunity for some sort of inappropriate payments to buy consent, I believe it is important that when a village is hosting two vast pieces of national infrastructure, it might get a park bench or some swings or something from the developer, which is making a huge amount of money.

There is a difficult balance to strike, but we all know good consent and good consultation when we see it. We know when a company is listening and when a community has been properly heard. I do not think that has been the case often enough and I am delighted to have the chance to put that on record.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I thank the Minister for giving way and engaging so much in the debate. There are question marks around where the Government are going with planning. I believe investment zones have been dropped, but I am not sure where we are on fast-tracking things, and bypassing planning permission and local consent. I will leave that for another day. What I want to ask him is this: I understand what he said about a hypothetical situation where fracking was proven to be safe, the local community wanted it and so on, but why is that not the case for onshore wind? If a local community would clearly benefit from onshore wind, why are they not allowed to have it?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I do not want to steal the thunder of my ministerial colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, who is looking at that issue right now. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have revealed that we are exposed on a number of our food and agricultural supply chains. We need to get the balance right between covering far too much of our agricultural land and equally making sure that where communities can carry industrial sites, we have the right incentives in place.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

We have had a number of debates in Westminster Hall on that very issue. Others who have spoken on that have said that key agricultural land needs to be retained for food production, and all the more so because of the food supply crisis across the world and the Ukraine war. With great respect, I believe there has been a consensus that highly productive agricultural land needs to be retained for that purpose alone.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Member makes an important point, which I personally agree with and the Government are sensitive to. Again, our constituents would think it perverse if, at the very time when our exposure to international food supply and agricultural supply chains has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, we were then to decide to take out of productive capacity huge areas of agricultural land. Agriculture is a great British industry and the agritech sector is developing net zero technologies that allow us to do clean and green agriculture. We do not want to undermine that industry.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The Minister is being generous in giving way. Is it not time that we busted some urban myths about solar panels and where they go? Most of the time they go on land that is not suitable for agricultural use other than, for example, sheep grazing. Is there not a myth about where we are putting these solar farms?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I am not sure it is a myth; it is a mixed bag. There are areas where solar has been deployed very effectively, with happy sheep grazing around it and very little reduction in the productive capacity of land. I do not want to stray beyond my brief—I am not the Minister with responsibility for energy—but equally there are in my part of the world, in the east of England, proposals for huge, industrial-scale solar on good productive farmland. In the spirit of the question from the hon. Member for Strangford, I think a lot of people are worried about those proposals.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I was asking about onshore wind, not the solar issue. With solar, there is the question of how the Government classify the best and most versatile—BMV—land. I totally agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that genuine BMV land should not be used for anything other than growing food, but I asked about onshore wind. Onshore wind does not always need to be put on farmland; there are lots of other potential sites.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. In some ways, the two are linked, because there are plenty of examples of deployment of solar and wind onshore that do not undermine the productive capacity of land or the attractiveness of the area. Opinion polls show that if they are properly deployed in the right areas with the right consultation and consent, onshore measures can be popular. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Climate is considering whether there is more we can do to tackle this short-term energy crisis in a way that does not create a problem for us downstream.

I should wrap up; I have strayed beyond my core brief as the Minister for science, research and innovation. Let me close by giving all those watching this debate around the country clear reassurance that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Government, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Climate have taken us back to the position set out in our 2019 manifesto, of which I was proud: an effective moratorium on fracking. We have made it clear that Ministers are not looking to open up fracking to support the crisis in our energy sector. I hope that message goes forth, loud and clear around the country, to those who were understandably worried back in September. They no longer need worry about that at least.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 10:27 am, 15th November 2022

I thank you, Mr Paisley, for your chairmanship, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. I also thank the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson, Kerry McCarthy, for attending the debate. To clear up any confusion, at the start I was expressing my disappointment that there were not more Back Benchers here to put on the record their concern about their communities being able to consent to a very controversial process.

I am also grateful to the Minister for clarifying the Government’s position; I think that we all agree that that U-turn is welcome. However, while there is still this shadow of doubt, it would be nice if the Government committed to putting some formal consent process in place to safeguard communities in the event of a future change of heart.

I thank Jim Shannon for his kind words, for giving us the Northern Ireland perspective, and for clarifying that the issue is controversial across the whole United Kingdom, not just in rural England.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath for her kind comments. She is a formidable environment campaigner, who we are proud to have in our party, and she made an excellent speech, expressing that local empowerment is at the heart of what Liberal Democrats stand for and believe. I am grateful for her contribution.

I cannot remember the last time that anyone described me as exciting, so I thank the Minister for that kind comment; I hope that it was well intended!

I am grateful for the comments made today. Everybody has made valuable points. We strongly feel that the local consent mechanism should be put in place to safeguard our communities.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on leading her first Westminster Hall debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered local consent for fracking.

Sitting suspended.