Fracking, Permitted Development and NSIP – your questions answered

A garden shed.

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is permitted development?

Permitted development is the part of the UK planning system which allows people to carry out low-impact improvements on their property without having to apply for planning permission. It was introduced in 1948 to enable people to make modest improvements on their homes without having to apply to the council.

What kind of things can people do to their houses under permitted development rules?

Typical home improvements you can undertake under permitted development rules are converting your loft into a bedroom, moving a door or a window, putting up a fence, adding a conservatory or building a garden shed.

That’s all very interesting. But what’s this got to do with fracking?

On 17th May the Government issued a Written Ministerial Statement which proposes that exploratory drilling for shale gas should be considered permitted development, and therefore would not require planning permission from the local council.

What do they mean by ‘exploratory drilling for shale gas’?

Before companies can frack, they need to build a well-pad and drill an exploratory well, which will then be used to take core samples of the rock, and then they will probably need to conduct a series of ‘mini-fracks’ to find out of they can produce commercial quantities of gas.

An exploratory fracking well pad.

You mean like the kind of thing they were going to do at Kirby Misperton?

Exactly. See the photo on the right for what an exploratory fracking well-pad looks like. Pretty low-impact, I’m sure you’d agree.

Hang on a sec. So you’re telling me that the government wants the planning system to treat a fracking well-pad in the same way as a garden shed?

You are correct. If the government gets its way, fracking companies will be able to put one of these things a few hundred metres from your home, school, town or village without even having to apply for planning permission.

That’s crazy. Why on earth would they be proposing such a move?

There are lots of reasons, but the main one is probably because in every single place where fracking is proposed, local communities are up in arms about it and raising all sorts of objections to the industrialisation of their local area and the threat fracking poses to their health, environment and water. This has resulted in thousands of objections from local people to every fracking application, which takes up quite a bit of time to process. This widespread and unceasing opposition to fracking has meant that some applications for exploratory drilling have been refused, others have been challenged in court, and those that have been allowed have been the focus of widespread peaceful demonstrations. So, rather like the school bully complaining to the teacher that someone has stolen his lunch, fracking companies have gone to the government to complain that local residents and democratically elected local councils are slowing down their attempts to frack. This permitted development ruse is therefore a way for fracking companies (and the pro-fracking Conservative government) to bypass that pesky planning system and force fracking on unwilling communities.

A conservatory.

This doesn’t seem to be in line with the Government’s commitment to encouraging localism and letting the local community have the final say (as they do with wind farms, for example).

That’s true, and perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects to these proposals is that the government seems happy to completely ignore local democracy and accountability in their desperation to kick-start the failing fracking industry in the UK. For a political party this is a risky step, particularly when many of the areas that are being threatened, such as North Yorkshire, are run by Conservative councils.

Is this permitted development rule now enshrined in the laws of the land? 

No, not yet. The Government will be launching a consultation on this in the summer. And before you ask, we will indeed be publishing guidelines on how to respond to this on our website. Watch this space.

James Brokenshire MP

Which minister made this Written Ministerial Statement?

His name is James Brokenshire MP, and he is the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

That sounds an important job. I guess that means he must be some sort of expert in fracking and planning law.

Not really. He was appointed on April 30th, 2018, less than a month before he made this statement. Before that he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. So his knowledge and experience of the unconventional hydrocarbons industry is, um, somewhat limited.

And which constituency does the Honourable James Brokenshire MP represent?

Old Bexley and Sidcup, in south-east London.

Is there any fracking planned for his constituency?

I think you probably know the answer to that, but no, there is no fracking planned in the leafy suburbs of Old Bexley or Sidcup. However, to be fair to Mr Brokenshire, he was only following the orders of his boss, Greg Clark, who is the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

    Greg Clark’s shed (probably)

Which constituency does Greg Clark represent?

Tunbridge Wells. And before you ask, there is no fracking planned there either.

Isn’t it interesting how all the people who are making these decisions don’t actually live in areas which are under threat from fracking?

You make a good point. But some Conservative MPs who do represent fracking communities are very concerned about this. For example, Lee Rowley MP, Conservative MP for North-East Derbyshire (where INEOS are planning to frack), said: “I’m afraid I don’t agree with these proposals and will say so when the consultation opens.” And even pro-fracking Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, who represents the North Yorkshire constituency of Thirsk and Malton, said, “I have serious concerns about potential new measures on shale gas, particularly permitted development and transfer to national planning system.”

Blimey! Does that mean Kevin Hollinrake is anti-fracking now? Perhaps I have fallen asleep and woken up in a parallel universe.

Don’t get your hopes up, and no, this is still the real world, in which Mr Hollinrake is a committed supporter of the industry, However, he does seem concerned about the fact that the permitted development would effectively bypass local democracy and mean that local people and their elected representatives would not have any say whatsoever in whether their area was to become a fracking zone. Perhaps he thinks that won’t play well at the polls next time round, and he may well be right.

Kevin Hollinrake MP wondering if he locked his shed.

Perhaps we’ll see Kevin joining the anti-fracking protesters outside the gates of KM8 waving a placard saying ‘NOT NEAR MY HOUSE’!

Now you really are living in a parallel universe.

But this permitted development would just be for exploratory drilling, right? If a company then wanted to establish a multi-well fracking site for commercial production, they’d still need to apply for planning permission, wouldn’t they?

Currently, that is true. However, it would be a very brave council that would refuse permission for production if commercially viable quantities of gas were found during the exploratory phase, particularly as by then the well pad would already be in place. And even if they did, their decision would most likely get overturned on appeal by the Secretary of State anyway. But just in case, the government have a plan for that too. It’s called NSIP.

Hmm, acronyms are never good. What does NSIP stand for?

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. The Written Ministerial Statement also proposes that fracking becomes an NSIP, which would mean that even full-scale commercial production would not need local planning permission, as it would all be decided and imposed by central government. So, in practice, the government and the fracking industry would sit down in a room in Westminster and decide amongst themselves where they want to frack, and there wouldn’t be a damn thing county councils or local communities could do about it. And yes, there will be also a consultation on NSIP in the summer.

It sounds to me like the government have realised that they have completely lost the argument over the need and supposed benefits of fracking, and have decided that they are just going to force it on people anyway.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. But all is not lost. This is causing a huge controversy and this is not law yet. Many groups up and down the land are fighting this and opposition to these outrageous and undemocratic plans are growing every day.

A normal size exploratory fracking well-site

So, what can I do to stop this happening?

Most importantly, we want everyone to spread the word far and wide that this is going on. (The Ministerial Statement was rather cynically issued on the Thursday before the Royal Wedding, so it got very limited coverage in the Harry-and-Megan-obsessed media). Forward this article, tell your friends, contact your elected representatives, write to your local paper. And of course please respond to the public consultations when they are launched in the summer. This usually happens just before the Parliamentary recess, again rather cynically because they think people can’t be bothered to respond during the summer holidays. However, they had better get some extra staff in because this time they will be getting many thousands of responses – including yours, we hope.

Yes, definitely. Thanks for the update. How can I keep up with what’s happening with permitted development and NSIP?

If you haven’t already done so, please click here to sign up for our newsletters, which will bring you all the news on this issue and other fracking-related topics straight to your in-box. And don’t forget to check the Frack Free Ryedale Facebook page and Twitter feed too. Also check out this post on Drill or Drop, which includes reaction from the anti-fracking community and the oil and gas industry. And of course please read the Written Ministerial Statement itself, which isn’t very long and contains information about a number of other worrying things the government is doing, including plans to set up a one-stop-shop Shale Regulator, which the industry has been demanding for years.

A really big garden shed

Thanks for all the information. There’s only one thing I’m still wondering about.

What’s that?

Whether I should go out and buy a new garden shed.

Well, if you do, at least you won’t need planning permission for it!