The hot days of July finally saw the debates around the implications of ‘fracking’ of unconventional hydro-carbons in the UK reach out and grab the attention of the national media. As Tory grandee Lord Howell called for the process to be focussed on the ‘desolate North’ (he corrected the initial impression that he was referring to the North East by saying that he really meant the North West) and Energy Minister Michael Fallon was reported in the Mail on Sunday as warning that fracking was likely to face fierce resistance from the middle classes in Conservative heartlands, as if to prove his point dozens of protesters were arrested at an exploratory drilling site near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking – the process of drilling and then injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas, has caused a revolution in energy policy in the USA where gas prices have dropped dramatically as gas from fracking particularly in North Dakota, and more controversially Pennsylvania, has come on stream. Coal has suddenly seemed a dirty and expensive option and as a consequence carbon emissions from the world’s biggest economy have dropped significantly.
Can the trick be repeated in the UK? The Coalition Government is betting the farm - quite a few farms actually – that it can. Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s Budget that fracking companies would receive tax allowances for developing gas fields and would be able to offset expenditure on exploration against tax for ten years.The next tax avoidance scandal perhaps. Best known and a pioneer in the field is Cuadrilla (referred to by some opponents as ‘Godzilla’) whose explorations in Lancashire have amongst other things led to a couple of minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011. But there are quite a few other companies across the country as the official estimate for UK reserves is 37 trillion cubic metres of shale gas in the north of England and geologists have yet to quantify reserves in the south.
But it is Balcombe in rural West Sussex which is becoming the test bed for what this means for energy experts, planners, campaigners and politicians. Campaign group Don’t Frack with the Fylde certainly raised the issues and those earthquakes, 1.5 and 2.3 in magnitude respectively, shook confidence in the safety of the technology (let’s face it: who notices in North Dakota where the nearest house is 60 miles away?) but the opposition in southern England is having a greater impact on politicians and opinion formers. The Mail on Sunday’s report of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon’s private briefing on fracking reported him as saying of potential well-heeled protesters ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive.’ He admitted that exploratory drilling was likely to spread the length and breadth of southern England saying ‘The second area [after the North West] being studied is the Weald. It’s from Dorset all the way along through Hampshire, Sussex… all the way a bit into Surrey and even into my own county of Kent.’
This focus on the lusher parts of the South East which has started at Balcombe is going to be a real concern for Conservative strategists. The ‘Noting Hill set’ has repeatedly been accused of ignoring its rural base as proposals ranging from the sell-off of forests, to wind farm policies, changes in planning laws, opposition to which has been championed by the Daily Telegraph, and the HS2 rail route through the Chilterns have all been seen as a slap in the face for this rural base, many of whom have gravitated towards UKIP. But the Greens too have a presence in the South East, with their charismatic MP Caroline Lucas representing a Sussex seat, an MEP for the region and their only council, Brighton and Hove, only a few miles away.
Meanwhile up in Whitehall, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been ruminating on what to do about the planning and land use implications of promoting the fracking revolution and on 19 July it spoke, issuing guidance to local planning authorities. The guidance stresses that fracking could be a vital source of energy, saying ‘Mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies… minerals planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction including to the economy when determining planning applications.’ It goes on to explicitly exclude any attempts by planning authorities to trade off fracking with renewable developments saying, ‘Mineral planning authorities should not consider demand for or consider alternatives to oil and gas resources when determining planning applications.’ Because of the scale and strategic nature of minerals planning applications these have remained a planning function of county councils, still Tory controlled in southern England.
It remains to be seen if DCLG will allow a level of discretion in determining these applications by county planning authorities which could well limit or even stop fracking in its tracks in the south, or whether as would be possible using potential secondary legislation under the Growth and Infrastructure Act, it could take applications for fracking for shale gas out of the hands of county councils and instead have them decided by the Secretary of State as part of the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. On the one hand it could bow to Tory pressure in the shires and allow all the developments to happen ‘up north’ by default as counties refuse most if not all applications. On the other, it may decide to take the risk, strip counties of their power and pull shale gas development permissions back into Whitehall. Only time, and a bit of local politics in the home counties, will tell.
Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government. He is National Policy Adviser on minerals planning for the Royal Town Planning Institute.