Gordon's open letter to the Chair of Lancashire County Council's Development Control Committee, whom are today deciding on two applications for fracking on the Fylde Coast.
Implications of Information Commissioner’s Ruling for Decisions on Shale Gas Sites
I write to you as Chair of the Development Control Committee of Lancashire County Council as you begin your review of the applications for the Preston New Road and Roseacre sites. I want urgently to highlight what I believe are the very important implications of the ruling last week by the Information Commissioner (that the Government must release a full unredacted version of their own Defra report on the impact of shale gas) for your deliberations and the outcome of them.
This document was only made available in a heavily redacted form to MPs and peers at the time of the Parliamentary debates in March on the Infrastructure Bill, whose passage has allowed applications for fracking to proceed. This failure to provide transparency about the evidence gathered in the report on the impacts of fracking in economic, social and other ways was heavily criticised by, among others, the all-party Environmental Audit Committee of MPs. Their report said ‘an unredacted version of the [Defra] report… should be published as soon as possible.’
An amendment to the Infrastructure Bill to facilitate this tabled by Anne McIntosh MP (New Clause 8) was not voted on, not least because of the heavily abbreviated timetable the Government imposed on the debate.
The Information Commissioner’s decision to demand the Government does now release the full Defra report is, I would argue, a crucial factor in any decision that your Committee might wish to take on the applications for the Preston New Road and Roseacre sites. The full report was not available to your officials when they submitted their recommendations on those sites, but we now have the prospect of having it be made available by the Information Commissioner’s ruling.
The Environmental Audit Committee said that public acceptance over decisions made on the approval of fracking proposals depended on the openness of information available to those making that decision. You and your colleagues are currently engaged in this four-day enquiry taking evidence and representations and then deliberating among ourselves - which I believe is a laudable and thoughtful process. But I would ask you to consider reserving your final decision until you and your colleagues have had the chance to consider this crucial unredacted Defra report which Government has, for whatever reason, fought hard to keep out of the public domain.
I am led to believe that any appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision must be lodged within 28 days of the decision announced last week. I appreciate this might mean a further delay of that period to your committee’s decision on the Cuadrilla’s applications for these sites. But in the scheme of things, and given the intense public concern, and the period of time that has already elapsed in this process, that would be more than outweighed by greater confidence that all the current and available material had been made available to you to make an authoritative judgement.
You will know already that because of the Government’s ‘watering down’ of previously agreed safeguards by the Commons in the series of thirteen new conditions and regulatory restrictions, there is already great concern that these are not being implemented in full, or completely or comprehensively. That is why the calls for a moratorium on any of these decisions until the health and climate impacts have been properly assessed have grown louder in recent weeks, and been supported by a number of MPs across Lancashire and the North West. Release of the full Defra document is a key part of that full assessment process.
The decisions made over these applications will be seen widely as having national significance. As the Member of Parliament for Blackpool South, where the impact of these applications will be felt, in terms potentially not just on our seaside and rural tourism, but also on residents in terms of their environment and pressure on local roads such as Preston New Road leading into the town, I am therefore urging you and your committee to reserve your final decision on the sites until you have been able to consider the Defra document.
Gordon Marsden MP