“Democracy died today”, wrote one irate Lancastrian yesterday on Facebook regarding the decision by the UK Government to overturn a decision by the local County Council to reject a fracking application by the shale gas company, Cuadrilla.
The controversial shale gas company, Cuadrilla, has been trying for years to drill for shale gas in Lancashire but has been thwarted by overwhelming opposition from the local community and rejection by three tiers of local government, culminating in a rejection by the County council last year.
The council cited visual impact and noise when it rejected Cuadrilla’s planning application, but the shale gas company then appealed to the Government, knowing the Government has said it will do everything in its power to kick-start the shale gas industry.
Indeed, the Conservative Government has made no secret of the fact that it is pro-shale. Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time programme in January this year, the Business Secretary Sajid Javid, said (from about 39 minutes in):
“At the moment we import 50 per cent of our gas needs, so the question for me is what is the best thing to do. Should we keep importing that gas at a higher price sending billions of pounds abroad ever year, or should we pay a lower price and spend those billions at home and create thousands of jobs. The answer for me is obvious.”
It was the Business Secretary, Javid who Cuadrilla appealed to, so it was obvious he was going to grant approval to Cuadrilla.
Yesterday he said: “Shale gas has the potential to power economic growth, support 64,000 jobs, and provide a new domestic energy source, making us less reliant on imports. We will take the big decisions that matter to the future of our country as we build an economy that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.”
The problem we have now is that Javid’s decision makes a mockery of Britain’s globally-respected planning process. If the Government approves every fracking application – even if there is overwhelming local opposition – then it just totally undermines the planning process and local democracy. It effectively makes the planning process redundant.
No wonder then that the decision was met with decision and outrage from the local community, environmental groups and other political parties.
Many also pointed out that ironically the decision came a day after the UN Paris climate agreement was formally ratified as enough countries had signed up. Twitter commentators were quick to point out as the rest of the world moved to act on climate, the UK went the other way.
This is even more pertinent given the news that the fossil fuel industry’s emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is dramatically higher than previously thought. The biggest study of its kind ever undertaken has found that emissions of methane from gas, oil and coal production were 20-60% greater than existing estimates.
The local anti-fracking group, the Preston New Road Action Group, said it was devastated by the decision, pointing out that three tiers of local democracy: the Parish council, Borough council and County Council had all rejected Cuadrilla’s application.
The Group said: “Over 100,000 people objected to fracking here: unprecedented numbers of the community said no. Due democratic process has been followed but our local community will feel ignored and overruled by this decision. Effectively, an external corporate industry is controlling local democratic planning decisions.”
Pat Davies, Chair of Preston New Road Action Group added: “There is no social license to proceed with fracking in Lancashire. It is deplorable that an industry which has been rejected on every level seems to believe it is acceptable to inflict itself on an unwilling county. That is neither right, nor fair and not least, it is wholly undemocratic.”
She continued: “The ramifications of overturning local planning decisions are huge and stretch way beyond the fracking argument. Ordinary people are appalled that we are governed by people who say one thing and do another. The callous disregard for local planning raises questions about whether local planning has any real purpose now.”
“Dismantling the democratic process to facilitate a dirty fossil fuel industry when only months ago the UK committed to climate change targets in Paris is another example of saying governmental hypocrisy,” said Davies.
Pam Foster, co-founder of another local anti-fracking group, Residents Action on Fylde Fracking, was equally outraged: “This is a total denial of democracy. Our parish council, our borough council, our county council all threw out this application. We have pursued every democratic channel we can do, there’s nothing left for us. We’re pretty disgusted and very upset.”
Others were equally appalled. Barry Gardiner MP, Labour’s Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said: “The government’s decision bulldozes local democracy and risks locking Britain into an old-fashioned dirty energy infrastructure when we should be seizing the opportunities for new long-term jobs and investment in a clean energy future.”
Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, said: “Ministers promise to support ‘ordinary people’ but have ignored the people of Lancashire – including local and district councillors and the overwhelming majority of local people who objected to these reckless plans. They claim to support the Paris agreement, but are hellbent on developing new fossil fuel projects.”
Friends of the Earth campaigner, Pollyanna Steiner, added: “Fracking goes against everything we need to do to tackle climate change. The government must end its fixation with dirty fossil fuels and focus instead on harnessing the UK’s huge renewable energy resource.”
Damian Carrington, the head of Environment at the Guardian newspaper, accused the Government of blatant hypocrisy: “Javid’s decision shows the government remains unwavering in its support for unproven, climate-polluting and unpopular fracking, whilst cracking down on proven, clean and popular renewables.”
But before the fracking industry pops the champagne corks, it should realise that the local communities have declared that they will continue the fight. Pat Davies, the Chair of Preston New Road Action Group said: “This is not the end. We will challenge this.”