Laying down the law: planning for fracking operations

28th August 2015

Andrew Wiseman outlines new government proposals to speed up the planning process for onshore gas and oil applications to help trigger shale exploration in the UK.

Proposals to fast-track shale gas planning applications have been announced by the departments of energy and climate change (Decc) and the communities and local government (Dclg).

Energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd said: “We can’t have a planning system that sees applications dragged out for months, or even years on end.”

Opponents of fracking have queried whether the changes are about improving the planning system or simply trying to achieve different result from those that the planning authority might take.

A case in point

The joint announcement follows a high-profile example of the difficulty in obtaining planning permission for shale gas exploration. In June, Lancashire County Council rejected Cuadrilla Resources’ planning application to drill, fracture and flow test four shale gas wells at Preston New Road, near Blackpool.

Cuadrilla had originally submitted the application in June 2014 for the site and another at Roseacre Wood, also in Lancashire. The council took 12 months to reach a final decision. The deadline for the decision was extended several times, twice at the request of Cuadrilla, which wanted to submit a new traffic plan for Roseacre Wood and new proposals on noise mitigation. Further delays occurred when the council asked Cuadrilla to revisit part of its environmental impact assessment, and to allow the council to consult the public on new information.

The council refused the proposal for Roseacre Wood in line with the advice of its planning officers. The decision to reject the Preston New Road application was particularly controversial, because the council’s planning officers had recommended its approval.

Cuadrilla announced in July that it will appeal against the council decisions to refuse the two applications as well as the refusal of a separate one to install seismic and groundwater monitoring stations around the proposed Preston New Road exploration site.

The new planning proposals

The new measures proposed by Decc and Dclg include:

  • Identifying local planning authorities that repeatedly fail to determine oil and gas applications within the statutory 16-week timeframe. The government will be able to call in planning applications from “underperforming” councils.
  • The government will consider calling in shale gas planning applications and recovering shale gas planning appeals on a case-by-case basis.
  • Adding a new shale gas application criterion for recovery of appeals.
  • Requiring the Planning Inspectorate to prioritise planning call-ins and appeals involving shale gas.
  • Further work on revising permitted development rights for boreholes for groundwater monitoring.

The government has also announced that it will this year publish proposals on the design of a new sovereign wealth fund for communities hosting shale gas developments. The plans to launch a fund from shale gas profits were confirmed by the chancellor, George Osborne, in his July budget.

At the same time as outlining plans to amend the planning process, Dclg published the government’s response to its March 2015 consultation on giving permitted development rights to drill boreholes to monitor groundwater during petroleum exploration (including shale gas) by amending part 22 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. The revisions would enable groundwater monitoring to be put in motion earlier in the planning process, and, says the government, provide early reassurance that the environmental impacts are being properly considered in the case of petroleum exploration proposals.

A second consultation has now been published containing further amendments. The government says this should assist in establishing a more informed baseline for future monitoring; provide information to inform any environmental statement for an environmental impact assessment; and inform the location of drilling sites for any future planning application for petroleum exploration. The consultation ( closes on 24 September 2015.

Council rejected legal advice

In June, county councillors in Lancashire refused an application by Cuadrilla Resources to frack for shale gas at the Preston New Road site, near Blackpool despite legal advice that their grounds would not stand up at appeal. The application was rejected on the grounds of noise and visual impact by nine councillors out of 14 on the council’s planning committee. Before the vote, the committee sought legal advice from David Manley QC. He stated that refusing the application on the ground of visual impact would not stand up at a planning appeal since the council’s own landscape adviser had described the impact of the development as “moderate”. The council’s planning officers had recommended that the application be approved. However, independent legal advice by Richard Harwood QC for Friends of the Earth stated that committee members were entitled to disagree with advice given to them. He pointed out that Cuadrilla’s proposal would have a moderate impact on landscape and would raise noise levels in the area.


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