New planning rules for fracking gives government power to fast-track applications

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Local authorities will have 16 weeks to make a decision on shale gas exploration applications before the Communities Secretary steps in to take the decision on their behalf

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has announced that new planning processes will fast-track applications to explore for shale gas — but secretary of state Amber Rudd and energy minister Greg Clark insist that the new rules will still allow any concerns that local communities have about fracking will be taken into consideration.

The new rules reflect concerns that slow and confused decision making by councils holds up shale applications for too long, creating uncertainty locally and preventing the establishment of a UK shale gas industry, which the government believes is important for keeping gas prices low and ensuring security of supply.  “There is huge potential right across the country for safe and sustainable use of shale gas, to provide a clean long term energy source and create British jobs and growth,” Rudd said.

The new rules gives local authorities 16 weeks to make a decision on shale gas planning applications. If they don’t meet this deadline, the Communities Secretary can ‘call ‘in’ the application and make a decision unilaterally. This would be done on a case-by-case basis. Councils that repeatedly  fail to hit the 16-week deadline could have all shale applications referred to the Communities Secretary, again on a case-by-case basis, while appeals against shale applications could again be referred to the secretary of state.

“Oversight by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency of shale developments makes our commitment to safety and the environment crystal clear. We now need, above all else, a system that delivers timely planning decisions and works effectively for local people and developers. 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,” Rudd commented. “By fast tracking any appropriate applications today’s changes will tackle potential hold ups in the system.”

The changes were greeted with approval by industry bodies.  “Today’s announcement is a clear demonstration from government that it intends to hit the ground running and get a UK shale gas industry moving,” said EEF director of policy Paul Raynes. “It has been obvious for quite some time that the regulatory quagmire that industry had to wade through was acting as a wholly unnecessary brake on development in the sector. Desperately needed reform was frustrating slow during the last parliament, but the new government has grasped the nettle and shown it is serious about the issue.”

For the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, head of energy and Environment Jennifer Baxter said that “a vital part of ensuring a joined up approach to creating our 21st century energy infrastructure is ensuring local planning committees have the tools and information to make decisions for their communities.”

“The government must create an environment whereby local authorities are equipped to deal with decision making on large energy infrastructure and engineering projects,” Baxter added. “Hydraulic fracking is not a ‘silver bullet’, but developing projects in the UK could play a part in securing the country’s future energy demands, this is combined with the opportunities for local communities to create a multi-generational industry that promotes engineering skills and regional economic growth.”