A Government proposal to bring in major changes to planning law to allow fracking firms to drill, wherever they have a permit, without planning permission, has sparked fury.
In a statement today, the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, has said the changes were needed to speed up the development of a shale gas industry in the UK. He said fracking was needed to replace dwindling North Sea gas supplies and to reduce imports from abroad.
The ideas have won industry support, but fracking opponents and environmentalists have reacted with anger, saying the proposals would "pervert the planning process’ and force fracking on communities."
The Government's changes include, consulting this summer on making exploration drilling a "permitted development" which could mean companies such as Cuadrilla which has a drill site at Preston New Road and is awaiting a planning inquiry for a second at Roseacre Wood, would simply be able to go ahead and drill.
He has also suggested a consultation on whether shale production projects should go into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime, which would mean the decision on whether to allow fracking to start at a drill site would go the the Government alone.
Other changes include the launch of a new £1.6m shale support fund over the next two years to help local authorities cope with with shale applications, a new planning brokerage service for shale applications to provide guidance to developers and local authorities on the planning process to cut time, and treating an appeals against refusal of permission as a priority for the Planning Inspectorate to further speed things up.
It is also planning to bring in a new shale environmental regulator – an umbrella group "which will bring the regulators together to act as one coherent single face for the public, mineral planning authorities and industry" overseeing the roles currently carried out by the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority.
The statement also said the Government would look to make sure fracking companies shared more of the wealth generated with local communities.
The Government said it "will strengthen community engagement by consulting in due course on the potential to make pre-application consultation a statutory requirement."
But opponents of fracking have reacted angrily saying the plans would further undermine democracy and side-step proper planning scrutiny.
Rose Dickinson, campaigner at Friends of the Earth said: “The government’s plans pervert the planning process and could make England’s landscape a wild west for whatever cowboy wants to start drilling and digging up our countryside. Permitted development was meant to help people build a fence or a conservatory, not drill for gas.
“With all the inherent risks of fracking anyone would think that the government would at least want the process done properly and fairly, rather than wrestling what modest power local people have to object away from them.
"If there was a referendum on fracking, it would be banished to the dustbin of history – and that’s where these proposals belong. Instead, the Conservatives are planning to railroad it through against the wishes of local people and the wider public."
Rebecca Newsome, Head of politics for Greenpeace UK, said: “After seven years of fracking doing less than nothing to help our economy, the government’s still going all out for shale, and still trampling over democracy to prop up this collapsing industry.
"Communities and their local councils across the UK have said no in every way they can, but the government have turned a deaf ear to everyone who doesn’t own fossil fuel company.
"In their commitment to extract more gas than we can afford to burn, they are trying to remove planning control from everyone who understands their local area and make exploratory drilling as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory.”
A spokesperson for Frack Free Lancashire said: “This ministerial statement shows that the government is prepared to ride roughshod over local democracy. It is hopelessly conflicted over its climate change obligations and is relying on magical thinking about non-existent Carbon Capture and Storage to justify its capitulation to the shale gas lobby.
“Dr Frackenstein's sickly monster is lying on the operating table and the government is trying to jolt some life into it in spite of huge national opposition and a growing body of scientific evidence against fracking. 79 per cent of the UK public supports renewable energy, whereas only a measly 18 p[er cent support fracking.
The announcement has been welcomed by the shale gas industry.
Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla Resources, said: “We very much welcome the Government’s announcement today highlighting the national importance that shale gas development has in delivering a safe and secure energy source, whilst meeting the country’s Climate Change obligations.
"We are pleased it is also recognised, as we ourselves are proving in Lancashire, that shale gas can and does deliver important economic benefits. In the last two years our exploration operations are responsible for driving almost £9m into the Lancashire local economy and creating 60 local jobs.
“In particular we welcome the measures the Government has introduced on making the planning process “faster and fairer” and providing additional resources to help local authorities.
"Our planning permission to drill and test just four shale gas exploratory wells in Lancashire was granted after a lengthy and costly three year process. These timelines must improve if the country is to benefit from its own, much needed, indigenous source of gas.”
Ken Cronin, Chief Executive of UKOOG, the industry body, said: “This country needs a diverse supply of energy which protects and secures UK jobs and UK taxes. Imported gas currently costs over £13 million a day – money that is not generating jobs or tax revenues in this country.
"To achieve greater homegrown energy production, Britain also needs a policy framework and a planning and permitting system that allows industries like ours to be able to get decisions within timescales that work for all concerned including the local communities we work in.
"This announcement goes some way to ensuring that our energy security is protected and the benefits we have already seen flowing into communities become much more widespread.”