Hello again, and a very happy New Year. Another year, another consultation, I see!
And a happy New Year to you too! Yes, the consultations just keep coming, don’t they?
What happened to the consultations I responded to last year?
You probably mean the ones that asked whether exploratory drilling should be classed as Permitted Development, and full-scale fracking should become a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. These two consultations closed on 25th October, and this new one opened less than a week later, on 31st October. The government has not yet published the results of the first two consultations.
But wouldn’t it be helpful to know what happened with the first two consultations before immediately launching another one on a similar topic?
It would indeed, and that is certainly a point that you can make in your response to this one.
What’s this consultation about?
According to the consultation guidelines document, “This consultation seeks views on whether applicants should be required to conduct pre-application consultation with the local community prior to submitting a planning application for shale gas development.”
Whilst this appears to be a positive thing in principle, pre-application consultations are seen by many as an opportunity for companies to share information with communities, and for communities to raise general concerns or issues with developers e.g. noise or traffic. They do not provide the opportunity for any detailed scrutiny of proposed plans, as would happen with a planning application, and so are not a substitute for community involvement in applications. Also, it’s often been the case that companies just use these pre-application community get-togethers as a marketing exercise, and representatives aren’t willing or able to answer questions about specific plans or well sites.
And how do I register my comments to this new consultation?
You also have the option of downloading the consultation form and emailing it to the relevant department (probably too late to put anything in the post). To find out how to do this, click here.
When’s the deadline?
The consultation closes on Monday 7th January at 11.45 pm. So no time like the present!
OK, let’s get to it. Bring on question 1.
Here’s question 1: Should community pre-application consultation be compulsory prior to applying for planning permission for shale gas development?
There are three tick box options for a response – Yes, No, or Not Sure. We recommend that you tick Yes’.
Hey, this is easy! What about question 2?
This might take a bit longer. Question 2 asks: By what process (if any) should prospective applicants be required to conduct community pre-application consultation prior to applying for planning permission for shale gas development?
This question is followed by three tick boxes: onshore wind development, Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime, or ‘Other’, with a write-in box below.
Firstly, we recommend that you read pages 12-15 of the Consultation Guidelines, which outline the current requirements for onshore wind developments, NSIP projects and shale gas developments. This will provide a bit of background to inform your response (and it’s only four pages long!). Here are our thoughts on the three options.
Onshore wind developments option
As you may know, the government have made onshore wind development almost impossible, despite 80% of the country saying they are in favour of renewable energy (compared to only 15% in favour of fracking). This is partly because the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has established a de facto ban on new onshore wind projects, as it requires evidence of public backing beyond what is required for any other major planning applications. The inclusion of the current wording in the NPPF means that planning authorities would be forced to reject wind turbines in nearly every case, thus shutting down the onshore wind industry (nice one, ‘greenest government ever’).
Bearing this in mind, one might be tempted to tick this box in response to Q2. One could argue that the government have made the rules so rigorous to effectively ban onshore wind development, then they should do the same for unconventional oil and gas and use the same criteria as they do for onshore wind farms. It’s a compelling argument. However, things aren’t quite that simple. Onshore wind is a different sort of development to a fracking well site – you just put up a wind turbine, connect it up to the grid, and then you’re done – i.e. it’s a one-stage process. As you probably know, shale gas exploration takes place in three stages – exploration, appraisal and production – and the key stage in the development of a shale gas industry is the first one, exploration.
Exploration is seen by many as the Trojan Horse of the fracking industry, as companies can apply for permission to construct an exploration well-site of less than a hectare in size, often without needing to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (and currently there is no legal requirement for pre-application community consultation either). Once the well-site has been put in place, the well has been drilled and HGV routes established, it is much easier for companies to apply for full production if they find oil or gas in the shale rock (hey, we’re already working there, so what’s the harm?) – and it would be a brave council to oppose this if gas has been found.
Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project option
The fact that the NSIP consultation regime is given as an option seems to be a bit of a trap, as by ticking this box it could be interpreted as approval of fracking to be classed as an NSIP – which of course was the subject of a separate consultation last year. So we strongly suggest that you don’t tick that box!
Given the above, we would recommend that you tick ‘Other’ here, and add some comments in the box along the following lines about this question and the consultation in general. If possible please put these in your own words.
I would like to repeat my strong objections to non-hydraulic exploratory drilling for shale gas being reclassified as Permitted Development, and full scale shale gas production being classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. It is clear that this third consultation on pre-application consultations is connected to these two proposals, and pre-application consultations are currently being considered as an alternative to proper, rigorous examinations by local authorities of individual planning applications. Unless the government had already decided to remove decisions related to shale gas from local planning authorities , why would any community also need a pre-application consultation, which would appear to have no legal weight or impact when the planning application is assessed?
If there were to be a pre-application consultation procedure for shale gas development, it would need to be specifically designed for this industry, rather than included in existing regimes. This is because shale gas exploration has a much greater long-term impact on communities, as thousands of wells would be needed to make a significant impact on the UK’s imports of gas for domestic consumption. Impacts on communities of shale gas development include a deterioration in air quality, higher noise levels, increased HGV traffic, potential water contamination, light pollution at night, impact on wildlife, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and many other negative impacts which are now widely known (and the reason why fracking is now banned in so many countries)
Pre-application consultations with local communities should not be used as a substitute for rigorous consultations on individual applications for unconventional oil and gas extraction. They are seen by communities as a PR events for shale gas companies and their PR consultants, and do not provide the opportunity for any detailed scrutiny of proposed plans for a specific well-site or area, as would happen with a planning application.
The inclusion of a tick box in this question suggesting that this pre-application consultation procedure should correspond to that currently used for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects is very disturbing, particularly as the results of the consultation on this proposal have yet to be published. It appears to be an attempt to leverage agreement to the NSIP proposals through the back door, and gives the clear impression that the government have already decided that fracking will become part of the NSIP regime, whatever the responses to the recent consultation.
While genuine community consultation is welcome, a consultation can only be meaningful if a community has a genuine chance of affecting the outcome – or preventing a development from taking place. It is clear that this has not been the case with previous consultations on fracking, and no amount of local opposition can persuade this government-backed industry to withdraw an application.
For example, the planning application consultation for Third Energy’s KM8 well in North Yorkshire received 4,375 objections and only 36 responses in favour – yet the application was waved through by the Conservative-led council. To add insult to injury, local residents were told the huge number of objections did not constitute a ‘material objection’ to the project.
At Preston New Road in Lancashire, Cuadrilla’s application received many thousands of objections and the application was rejected by the council – only to be called in and the decision overturned by the Secretary of State. Given how local communities have been routinely ignored at every stage of the planning process to date, why would a pre-application consultation be any different?
In the context of the Government’s Written Ministerial Statement on shale gas development, and instructions in the updated NPPF for local authorities to ‘plan positively’ for fracking, any promises that the government will listen to communities who reject this industry are hard to take seriously.
Oil and gas companies are accountable to their shareholders, not the community. It has been shown time and time again that if the community clearly rejects fracking, the community is wilfully ignored by the oil and gas industry and government. Therefore no amount of ‘pre-consultation’ on unconventional oil and gas exploration will make a difference unless there is a clear commitment from the government that they will actually listen to communities – and allow them the right to reject fracking if that is what they decide.
Experiences of pre-application consultations in Yorkshire and elsewhere have left communities with a feeling that they are not being listened to. Third Energy and INEOS have held such events in North Yorkshire, and the overwhelming feeling of those who attended was that they were simply a marketing and PR exercise, and an opportunity for the oil and gas industry to publicise their view of unconventional oil and gas development. Any specific queries related to a particular application or impact of fracking were ignored or rebuffed, and most of the staff present had little technical or practical knowledge of local applications or conditions. If this is what is meant by ‘pre-application consultations’ in the context of this consultation, then they are worse than useless.
Fundamentally, fracked gas can never be ‘safe and sustainable’, nor can they help the UK meet our international climate change obligations. These are false promises. To avoid 1.5°C of warming the latest IPCC report underlines the urgent action needed on climate change within the next 11 years, and that cannot include kick-starting a new fossil fuel industry.
Let’s move on to question 3.
Question 3 reads: What (if any) shale gas development should be subject to compulsory community pre-application consultation?
This question is followed by three tick boxes: All shale gas development requiring a planning application / Where an Environmental Impact Assessment is required / Other criteria or threshold (please specify)
We have two options for you to consider here. You can just tick the first option – all shale gas development requiring a planning application – and leave it at that. As you’ll see, if you tick the first option on the online form, you are not allowed to write anything in the box below (sneaky move, by the way).
However, if you have the time we recommend you tick the third option – Other Criteria or Threshold – and add some comments along these lines in the box below.
If a system of compulsory community pre-application consultations is to be implemented, it should apply to every stage of onshore oil and gas development: i.e. exploration, appraisal and production, and there should be clear criteria stating under what circumstances fracking in the area can be rejected by the community’s response.
Currently the government and industry have colluded in dividing up shale gas production into three stages (exploration, appraisal, production), and local authorities are instructed to deal with each stage separately. This means that the full impacts of long-term oil and gas production cannot be included in any objections to an exploratory well – even though successful exploration will inevitably lead to an application for full production, and the consequent and long-lasting impact on the communities that will inevitably follow. And of course once the exploratory well pad has been constructed and the well drilled, it would be very unlikely for any local authority to feel able to reject such an application, particularly given the pro-fracking guidance currently included in the NPPF.
The option of only requiring pre-application community consultation if an Environmental Impact Assessment is required should not be considered. Applications for exploration for shale gas are generally not subject to Environmental Impact Assessments as they are considered to be ‘temporary’, even though successful exploration could lead to decades of gas production from the same site. Exploration is the ‘foot in the door’ for the shale gas industry, and so local communities should be allowed to raise long-term issues related to full production that would impact them if the exploration proved to be successful.
One of the most important questions relating to this proposal for pre-application consultations is this: what level of community opposition would be needed for the government and/or the oil and gas industry to withdraw an application? If there are no established criteria set down for deciding that a proposal to develop shale oil or gas is not acceptable to the local community, then how can any community-based consultation ever result in an application being refused? And without clearly set out terms for refusal, wouldn’t a pre-application consultation simply be another form of PR for the beleaguered oil and gas industry and its friends in government?
And what about the last question?
The last question is Question 4: Do you have any views the potential impact of the matters raised in this consultation on people with protected characteristics as defined in section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010?
This appears to be a standard question that is required at the end of each consultation, and here are a few points you could make:
People with protected characteristics are often not included in consultations as they may be disabled or elderly, and not able to attend meetings. Some people do not have access to the internet and are not mobile, so their views are often ignored. This has been an issue with elderly or infirm people who live on traffic routes to and from well-sites, who have been negatively impacted by an increase in HGV traffic and nighttime noise.
As it’s clear that a technical online consultation such as this one excludes many people from responding, what efforts have the government made to contact elderly people or people with disabilities to obtain their views, and how would their views be canvassed if a regime of pre-application consultation was applied?
And that’s it! Don’t forget to fill in your details on the online form and click send. Remember, the deadline is Monday 7th January at 11.45 p.m.
See you again soon, probably!