Fylde coast awaits historic decision on fracking

Residents and businesses across the Fylde are bracing themselves for fracking D-day.

Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 1:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 4:53 pm
The Cuadrilla gas site, Preese Hall in Weeton.

The government has earmarked tomorrow as the day when it will announce the decision of whether to allow two bids to test frack for natural gas from deep-lying shale rocks on the Fylde.

The Conservatives are currently holding their annual party conference in Birmingham, but it is due to end today allowing room in the political schedule for the important announcement.

Although fracking applications have been lodged elsewhere in the country, the Fylde is seen as a test case.

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As a result, the battle has been hard fought, being seen as a significant test of democracy, a clash between the environment and industry, a David and Goliath battle between big business and local communities, a struggle for the future of a new technology for this country and a chance to create jobs and wealth in the local economy.

However, if the decision comes as expected tomorrow it will not bring a closure to this controversial issue.

Residents who have lived with the worries of what they believe will be a noisy, smelly potentially health affecting industry next door, have said they are likely to apply for a judicial review.

But that would not necessarily stop any drilling.

If the Government rules against these two applications, it does not stop Cuadrilla from looking for other sites in Lancashire and submitting new applications.

Gas exploration company Cuadrilla applied for planning permission to drill and test the flow of gas from sites on land at Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road at Little Plumpton.

But in June 2015 Lancashire County Council went against council officials’ recommendations and threw out the applications along with an application to install monitoring equipment at the Preston New Road site.

An earlier application to install monitoring arrays at Roseacre Wood were passed with strict conditions.

Cuadrilla appealed against the decisions and a six week public planning inquiry was held at Blackpool Football Club’s Bloomfield Road stadium in spring this year with evidence being put forward at great length by both sides of the argument.

The government appointed inspector, Wendy McKay, then compiled her report which was then sent to the Secretary of State for communities Sajid Javid who will make the final decision.

That move is controversial since Fylde Council, the local parish councils and the county council have all rejected the applications and anti-fracking campaigners say that overruling local government would be anti-democractic.

The Government however, has backed the shale gas industry saying they would go “all out for shale” as it would provide much-needed home produced gas for the country and would create jobs and cash for the economy.

Pro-shale groups say the process can be done safely and relatively unobtrusively and the land returned to pre-fracking conditions afterwards.

But anti-fracking campaigners say that fracking, which involves the injection of high pressure water, sand and chemicals into the shale rock to force open the strata and release the gas, could cause earth tremors, damage the environment and change the Fylde from a rural agricultural and tourism based economy to industrial.

Problems began for the fracking industry after exploratory drilling started on the Fylde in 2011.

In April 2011 the first earth tremor was noticed, followed by a second in May.

In April 2012 a report linked the tremors to hydraulic fracturing operations at the Preese Hall drill site and the Government called a temporary halt to further fracking.

The moratorium was ended in December 2012 when the then Energy Secretary Ed Davey said it could go ahead with strict monitoring and safety regulations.

Today Fylde MP Mark Menzies, in whose constituency the fracking exploration has taken place said the appeal process had been exhaustive.

He said: “I, along with a large number of people around the country, have been awaiting the outcome of the Planning Inspector’s inquiry for some time now.

“I have said all along that Lancashire County Council made a decision on these applications following a thorough and detailed examination of the evidence and those decisions should be upheld.

“However, the ability to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate is part of the planning process and it was perhaps unsurprising Cuadrilla Resources chose to follow that route.

“I think the length of time the public inquiry has taken shows the Planning Inspectorate takes its role in this process extremely seriously.

“Although I had hoped it would be handled quickly for the sake of those residents who have been left in an uncertain position, it was important it was examined in close detail.

“I had always been somewhat nervous by claims applications may be ‘fast-tracked’ as it did little to quell people’s concerns, so I am glad the inspector has taken all the time at her disposal to weigh up all the arguments before making her recommendation to the Minister.”

Claire Stephenson, from Preston New Road Action Group, said: “We are awaiting the decision of the Secretary of State with heightened anxiety.

“This decision isn’t about the chamber of commerce, business interests or political lobbying: this is a decision that affects residents’ health, lives and businesses that depend on agriculture and tourism.

“If Mr Javid’s decision destroys the democratic refusal of these planning applications in Lancashire, then Cuadrilla can rest assured we will proceed to the highest legal levels possible to ensure the voices of the community are heard and respected.

“From parish to borough to county council: all said no.

“How can a pro-shale, vested interests government in Westminster surpass democratically and locally-elected councillors, who are acting on the behalf of their constituents?”

A spokesman for the Roseacre Awareness Group also said the decision would be a test of democracy.

They said: “The robustness of the Planning Regime has been used by Ministers to assure the nation that there would be no steamrollering through where site specifics proved demonstrable harm would be caused.

“The Government has repeatedly committed to “empowering” local people and their elected representatives.

“The overwhelming feeling at the costly Public Inquiry was that Cuadrilla’s case for fracking at Roseacre had been crushed: that Lancashire County Council, and its 
Planning Officials, had been right to refuse permission.

“The case advanced by Roseacre Awareness Group, representing a swathe of Fylde communities, was equally conclusive.

“But Cuadrilla’s barrister repeatedly played her “get out of jail” card: the Secretary of State.

“It is to be hoped that there will be honour and consistency in his decision.