The Conservative party has been indicating they might seize control of decision making on shale applications for some time. In 2015 Amber Rudd, the then Energy Secretary, said: “To ensure we get this industry up and running we can’t have a planning system that sees applications dragged out for months, or even years on end.”
The words were accompanied by a commitment from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to actively call-in stalled or unreasonably evaluated shale applications. All this in an effort to dislodge some of the stickiness within the various local authorities considering shale proposals.
The 2015 Conservative manifesto approached shale gas fracking from a softly, softly angle so typical of the Cameron era through promising the creation of a sovereign wealth fund for the North of England, complete with self-congratulatory references to tax cuts having contributed to the birth of this new and promising industry.
The 2017 manifesto that we see now however is considerably stronger. It takes non-fracking drilling to Permitted Development, promising to seize major decisions from local authorities and to set up one regulator to eliminate the inconsistency and infighting on shale amongst the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
There’s still the reference to a wealth fund of sorts, though that too will be tinkered with moving the funds more locally into the communities around drilling sites and making clear reference to ploughing the remaining income into whatever the government chooses elsewhere.
The pledge that will have caught most attention is the reference to taking major decisions into the National Planning Regime, is shale about to become national infrastructure?
The answer is no, we’re at least another government away from that decision being taken. For the time being at least the government remains committed to the continuance of existing, stringent environmental regulations and for decisions in the first instance to be a local matter.
There’s additional support on offer though to expedite local planning consideration of shale applications, with a central service proposed to support council officers drowning in the paperwork of what can be an intensely complicated endeavour.
Beyond the usual beating of the stick, this is all good news for local government. Additional support is on offer and ultimately, local government ought to be the decision maker on applications such as this, they are best placed to consider their localised impacts and weigh them up in consideration with the aims and ambitions of their communities.
The only negative is that perhaps local government should be put in charge of the income from shale first and foremost rather than whatever the fairly unclear reference to putting the money into the hands of affected communities actually entails.
But for the time being at least, the local level will continue to be the decision maker on shale, the government will only get involved in moments of unreasonable decision making and delay.
In all this spare a thought for Lancashire Police, who are spending £500,000 a month policing protests at Cuadrilla’s New Preston Road site which recently had its approval from the SoS cleared by the High Court. There’s no money or assistance for them tucked away in the manifesto at all.