Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has made his long-awaited decision following the appeals by Cuadrilla Bowland Limited against the refusal of Lancashire County Council to grant planning permission for the construction of a wellsite and the drilling of up to four exploratory wells, hydraulic fracturing and testing for hydrocarbons at two sites in Lancashire (Little Plumpton and Fylde). Following a six week public inquiry, the Secretary of State (SoS) agreed that permission should be granted at Little Plumpton, and whilst he agreed that the appeal at Fylde should be dismissed, he has given Cuadrilla the opportunity to provide any further evidence on highway safety. Subject to highway safety issues being satisfactorily addressed, the SoS is minded to allow the appeal and grant planning permission.
In his decision letter (6 October 2016) the Secretary of State (SoS) has stated that just because the relevant policies in the Joint Lancashire Minerals and Waste Local Plan do not specifically deal with shale gas, they should not be regarded as out-of-date or silent on the matter. Not surprisingly, the need for shale gas exploration is a material consideration of great weight, given the written ministerial statement issued in September 2015 which stated that shale gas development is a national priority.
On the issue of public health and public concern, the SoS has stated that it should be assumed that the regulatory system will operate effectively and agrees that there will be no health impacts arising from potential exposure to air and water pollutants. All potential impacts on health and wellbeing would be reduced to an acceptable level. On the issue of climate change, he agrees with the Inspector that how shale gas production relates to the obligations such as the Paris Agreement is a matter for future national policy. The proposals are consistent with the NPPF aim and will support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate.
The Secretary of State agrees that the local economic benefits at the exploration stage are modest and that little positive weight should be attributed to national economic benefits which could flow from commercial production at some point in the future.
Overall, he considers the proposed development is sustainable. The national need for shale gas exploration is a factor of great weight.
What does it means for future Shale Gas applications?
It is apparent that the Secretary of State has placed considerable weight upon the national need for shale gas set out in the Ministerial Statement last year. It is worth noting that the tensions between shale gas exploration and climate change obligations set out in the Paris Agreement are firmly a matter for future national policy and that proposals do not need to be concerned with this. Public health and public concern is often raised by protestors against operators so it is significant that the SoS attaches little weight to the potential impacts upon human health.
Overall, this is very welcome news for shale gas operators and if Cuadrilla can demonstrate highway safety matters at Roseacre Wood can be managed, the Secretary of State has made it clear that they should be able to proceed on both sites in Lancashire. The shale gas industry will be well aware that it has taken almost two and a half years to arrive at this decision and will want to see future applications determined much quicker if the industry is to grow and deliver real economic benefits to the country.
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