A call for Lancashire County Council to support the “traffic light system” of regulation for fracking sites has once again sparked a row over the authority’s stance on the subject – and the procedure for debating it.
Back in May, a motion was put forward by Green Party County Cllr Gina Dowding welcoming the government’s decision not to increase the strength of earth tremors which can occur before fracking has to be suspended – a level currently set at 0.5 on the Richter scale.
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But the proposal was thrown out after the council’s legal chief warned that a lengthy accompanying statement about fracking could leave members open to the charge that they had a pre-determined view of the shale gas industry if they have to judge future fracking applications.
A revised motion by County Cllr Dowding put before the latest meeting of the full council called on the authority to welcome “the government’s resolve not to change the thresholds and ask them to continue to prioritise public health and safety”. However, the slimmed down statement was soon at the centre of a controversy over the council’s constitution.
“Lots has been said about whether seismic activity [in the vicinity of fracking sites] can be felt at the surface or causes cracks in buildings,” County Cllr Dowding told members.
“But the issue is what those tremors are doing to the integrity of the [shale gas] well underground, which we can’t inspect.”
Responding to the debate, Conservative cabinet member for the environment and planning, Michael Green, put forward an amendment which removed reference to the traffic light regulations, but retained all other aspects of the motion. He told the chamber that the ruling group did welcome the prioritising of public health and safety.
But the move was blasted by opposition parties as an attempt to “wreck” the original proposal.
“If you’re satisfied the government is doing everything to prioritise health and safety, why have you taken out the resolve not to change the thresholds – unless you’ve no confidence that’s what the government is going to do?” Liberal Democrat David Howarth asked.
The amendment was carried – meaning it replaced the original proposal and was itself to be put to a vote to adopt it as the council’s official position.
However, County Cllr Dowding then attempted to “amend the amendment” by reinserting the reference to the traffic light system.
Chief executive Angie Ridgwell advised deputy chair of the authority County Cllr Susie Charles that the move would be against the council’s constitution, because it overturned a decision which had just been taken.
The meeting had to be adjourned after furious opposition members alleged that double standards had been applied about whether each of the two amendments contradicted what had gone before them.
Labour member Erica Lewis said the council “cannot have it both ways”.
Explaining the reason for her advice, Angie Ridgwell, said that County Cllr Green’s original amendment “retained the proposition…about prioritising public health and safety”.
“It removed the welcoming of the thresholds and that was an acceptable amendment.
“[County Cllr Dowding’s] amendment seeks to reinstate the reference to removing thresholds [which was] effectively the decision [that had already been] taken. That is why I have advised that the amendment is out of order,” Ms. Ridgwell added.
The second vote was also carried in favour of welcoming the prioritising of public health and safety – but without commenting on the specific system of regulation.
Speaking after the meeting, council leader Geoff Driver said members had been asked to vote on something which they did not know enough about.
“Nobody in the council chamber is an expert on whether the traffic light system is set at appropriate levels or not,” County Cllr Driver said.
“And once again the danger was that if any member or aspiring member of the development control [planning] committee had voted one way or the other, we could have been accused of pre-determination.
“The advice from the [legal] officer was that those members should act on the safe side – and that would have left about 25 percent of councillors unable to speak or vote, which would have made a mockery of it.”
Also responding after the debate had ended, County Cllr Dowding said the Conservatives had “missed an opportunity to show they’re on the side of Lancashire people”.
“This was a way of standing up for the protection of people’s health,” she added.