Fracking: the end of localism?

This week the Government has announced that it will intervene to fast track fracking applications if local authorities delay determination. The Government views shale gas as an essential part of the UK’s energy mix and hopes to prevent the controversial applications from stagnating in the planning system. Both of Cuadrilla’s applications which were refused by Lancashire County Council in June, a year after they were submitted, have been cited as examples of unreasonable delays in decision making.

The announcement has been met with fierce criticism from environmental groups, including Greenpeace, who allege that fracking is being taken out of the hands of local people and placed into the hands of central government. This is disputed by both the Communities Secretary, Greg Clark and the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Amber Rudd who believe that the announcement will “ensure local people have a strong say over the development of shale exploration in their area- but will ensure communities and the industry benefit from a swift process for developing safe and suitable new sites.”

Councils currently have 16 weeks to make a decision, this will remain the same, but any time over this will mean that councils risk being overruled. In this sense, the announcement isn’t a marked policy shift but rather a move by Government to assert its commitment to fracking and a warning to local authorities to give applications serious consideration. The Communities Secretary already has powers to intervene in all planning applications and to override local authorities. However, these powers will no longer be reserved for exceptional circumstances, and consideration of exercising them will become routine for fracking applications.

This isn’t to say that Greg Clark will bulldoze all fracking applications through the planning process, regardless of local opposition. Indeed the Communities Secretary has explicitly stated that the views of local communities will still be taken into account in the consideration of any fast tracked application, commenting “People’s safety and the environment will remain paramount and communities will always be involved in planning applications but no one benefits from uncertainty caused by delays in planning decisions.”

For developers, the announcement emphasises that thorough and genuine consultation will be essential ahead of submitting applications. At a local level, the potential influence of the electorate on the planning process is no secret, and opposition to fracking is fierce. However, demonstrating to local authorities that residents and stakeholders have been genuinely engaged will hold some weight when proposals are considered by councillors. This will be even more important for those applications which are fast tracked to consideration by central government, particularly given Greg Clark’s vocal commitment to continuing the work of Eric Pickles who he praised as the “godfather of localism”.

The announcement raises questions about the potential politicisation of the planning system and it will be interesting to see what applications the Communities Secretary choses to fast track and the political make-up of those local authorities. It is worth noting that enacting the fast track powers will not necessarily speed up determination of applications. The process of calling applications in itself can be a lengthy drawn out process subject to substantial delays in decision making.

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