Gordon has written the following letter to Andrea Leadsom MP, the Energy Minister in response to her fracking article in last week’s Gazette, and in response to her answers to my questions on gas storage.
I am writing to you in response both to your Parliamentary Answers to me received on the 7th September, on gas storage in Lancashire, and to an article under your name published in the Blackpool Gazette on the 1st September on fracking.
My Parliamentary Questions asked you what discussions your department had had with Lancashire Council, Wyre Council, environmental groups and local residents' associations, and indeed with other Government departments, prior to the decision to overrule the rejection of a planning application for gas storage made by Halite Energy in Preesall, Lancashire. Your replies baldly stated that the answer to this was none, as none were necessitated by planning law.
In legal terms this may be strictly accurate, but this is no excuse for a lack of desire on the part of the Government to genuinely engage with the community on such a controversial proposal. It suggests on the part of DECC Ministers no recognition of the fact that the Hailite (previously Canatxx) proposals have been a source of long-running opposition and concern over several years and several applications, including numerous petitions which have attracted tens of thousands of signatories, and incidentally opposed by MPs of all parties across the Fylde Coast and surrounding areas. It also suggests there was no appetite to engage with colleagues on the history of local government involvement in the applications or on the environmental impact of any such works.
Your article in the Blackpool Gazette also set out to reconcile the newspaper’s readers to the Government’s recent decision to include fracking applications in the list of those which can be called in for decision by the Secretary of State. But it is little comfort to people in Lancashire that you point out local planning processes can still go ahead, when the new Government planning rules mean the local process can simply be usurped by a Whitehall decision, whatever the result of local hearings. Real community power means the ability to influence final decisions, not simply to play a token role in the intervening process.
I hope you will also clarify that rather than just calling in applications that a local authority has been processing for more than 16 weeks, as your article implies, the Government’s recent planning changes include fracking as a type of application which is more generally subject to being called in, and specifically suggests that local authorities with a history of taking longer than 16 weeks to process applications might automatically have new applications called in.
I also felt it was frankly disingenuous to point out that it would be a company’s decision to appeal a planning decision and have it called in, not the Government’s, when it has been the Government’s recent decision to allow these appeals, and it would be the Government that would eventually choose to grant them. It is also very clear from public statements, not least by your own Secretary of State, that the Government is trying to railroad fracking applications through, and in the process abandoning any pretence to quasi-judicial impartiality, which historically has been the role of Ministers in such matters.
I am afraid the common thread that ties together the Government responses to these two cases of gas storage and fracking is a blatant disregard of the right of people to have their voice heard on the decisions that greatly affect them and their environment - not just as a tick-box listening exercise, but with real and meaningful powers as well. This is particularly regrettable from a Government which has often in this and the last Parliament trumpeted its apparent commitment to real localism.
As I pointed out in a Prime Minister’s Question earlier this year, the treatment we have seen in Lancashire of fracking and gas storage is quite at odds with the treatment of wind farms in other parts of the country, where the Government has been quick to insist to those communities that they would always have the final say on wind farm applications. I stress again it is the final say that my community wants and needs on fracking and gas storage, and indeed this is a power it has always exercised until taken away recently by Government decisions.
I would appreciate a proper substantive response offering an explanation as to why the Government does not recognise the value of going beyond what is technically required in planning law and genuinely seeking local and cross-departmental opinion on planning applications, and to explain the disparity between the powers my community is being offered to decide its own future compared to areas facing other major energy applications. I would also value an answer from you on what external legal advice you have taken in the case of the Hailite gas storage application in particular.
Gordon Marsden MP