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Shale Gas Exploration: Planning Permission

Volume 646: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning permission for shale gas exploration.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank all those attending and all those who have come along to speak. It is fantastic to see so many people in this Chamber for a 30-minute debate on fracking; it demonstrates the importance of this matter and the particular importance of the proposals before us.

Today I will talk about the current consultation, which the Government started and which will conclude in November, on the proposals to permit shale gas exploration through the permitted development scheme and the proposals to permit shale gas production through the national significant infrastructure projects scheme.

If hon. Members will bear with me, I will do one to two minutes of introduction and then I will be happy to take interventions.

I will set out my stall immediately: I stand here today to highlight my concerns on both those proposals and an industry that is highly controversial as a form of energy extraction, has a chequered history in the United Kingdom, has not been proven at scale and has, in my part of the world, caused the greatest amount of opposition that I have ever seen in my 15 years of experience in politics.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate. The Government talk a lot about localism. Does he agree with me that, if that means anything and is not just meaningless waffle, it should mean that decisions taken by local planning committees should be the final say on the subject of extracting shale gas, and that those decisions should not be subject to being overturned by some faceless inspector who does not have to live with the consequences of his or her decision?

Before the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire continues his speech, it is right and proper that the Minister has 15 minutes to respond. The hon. Gentleman indicated he was willing to take interventions, but I should warn him that they need to be very limited in number, or he will have no speech of his own left.

I appreciate the Chair’s guidance and I will seek to conclude by 11.15 am, with any interventions that I have taken.

I thank the Minister, who has been incredibly kind to me in hearing my comments on this and has spent some time with me already to talk about it. She is fully aware of my views both on fracking in general and on these proposals; I do not think anything I say today is new. I know there is a range of views in this Chamber on fracking. That is a discussion for another time. I am on record as being hugely sceptical of the merits of fracking. I do not think it will achieve its objectives and I wish we would move on to something else in our energy policy.

I will not take objections. What we need to debate here is the proposals on permitted development and NSIP. Whatever one’s views on those, my concern is exactly as has just been outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. The proposals before us for permitted development and NSIP do one main thing, and one main thing only: they take people out of a process that it is vital for them to be part of so that they have their opportunity to speak and to highlight why things are appropriate or inappropriate for their local area and why their environment will be so affected if these things go ahead.

I have had five sites in my constituency; one is currently being developed and a second one is before the planning inspectorate. Does my hon. Friend agree that, were we to go down the permitted development route, the concerns raised by residents about traffic planning at Roseacre Wood, which will probably kill it as a suitable site, would not be considered, and that the proposals the Government have laid before us are quite frankly bonkers?

My hon. Friend has a way with words, and he sums up the real concern within and without this House about the proposals. I understand the consultation is under way and is open; I hope that the Minister will highlight that she and the Government have an open mind on this. If I may demonstrate for a moment my experience in my constituency, I have had a planning application for exploration in Marsh Lane, which is the reason I became interested in this and the reason I have soured massively on fracking as a whole. That application simply to explore, which would be allowed under permitted development rights, would mean the imposition of heavy industrial equipment for five years. It would be the equivalent of pouring two football fields’ worth of concrete into an area that has not been changed since the 1695 enclosure Act, and putting a 60 metre-high drilling rig up there for six to nine months.

I will not give way for the moment. It is not just the 60 metre-high drilling rig; it is the industrial equipment that would stay there for a period of five years just for the exploration. From my planning application, that is a 2 metre-high perimeter fence, a 4.8 metre-high combination of bunding and fencing, two to three cabinets of 3 metres in height, acoustic screening of 5 metres in height, four security cameras of 5.5 metres in height, a 2.9 metre-high power generator, two water tanks of 3 metres in height, a 4.5 metre-high Kooney pressure control, a 4 metre-high blowout prevention and skid and choke manifold, 9 metre-high lighting and a 10 metre-high emergency vent. That is the wholesale industrialisation of the Derbyshire countryside for what is not a temporary period—and that is just exploration.

On the Island we have great problems as well, because we are one of the most geologically unstable parts of northern Europe. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very poor precedent for the Government effectively to force through something that is locally unpopular in many areas, because they could do so with many other things in future, including housing targets? Overall, as well as fracking, this is poor democratic accountability on the part of Government.

I will give way in one moment. This is the point about permitted development. On the NSIP proposals for actual production of fracking, having read the consultation I am unsure how this can be put into NSIP, even if it was a good idea. The consultation itself seems to confuse major shale gas production with shale gas production, but I have not seen a definition of major versus minor. Ultimately, the point about shale gas is that it happens in many places. Either we are defining a single well pad as major and sticking individual well pads into the NSIP regime—

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and then to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate. As he knows, I am far more positive about the prospects for shale gas exploration than he is. Nevertheless, I and the Select Committee that I sit on have raised genuine concerns about the permitted development process, the clarity around it, and whether it relates to simply drilling a hole on an existing well pad or the construction of an entire well pad, which is heavy industrial construction and could literally go anywhere in any one of our constituencies. There are real concerns and we need clarity on that specific point.

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, people from Mosborough were on the march that we had in Bolsover. We approach fracking in a different way from what he has described today. It is no wonder that the richest man in Britain, the head of INEOS, who has 60% of the shares, is very much into fracking. He is fracking in our area and he is fracking in the North East Derbyshire area. People from as far away as Scarborough came to that rally and the truth is that most of Britain is against fracking. Why does the hon. Gentleman not do the same as I have done and tell the Government, “I am against fracking wherever it happens.”?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in this. This is my second debate on this question, and I welcome his attendance. I have been making the case strongly for North East Derbyshire and strongly against fracking in North East Derbyshire since I had the privilege to be elected to this place, and I will continue to do so. The hon. Gentleman is a former miner and I have a huge amount of respect for him. I am the grandson of former miners who probably worked with him in the last decades that we were in the mines. One thing that unifies us—we are on exactly opposite ends of the political spectrum—is fracking. We are products of the soil and the toil and the mines in our area, which we have been proud to be part of for generations, and we do not think that fracking is the right way to go.

To continue my NSIP point, the Planning Act 2008 put down a series of criteria that large-scale infrastructure projects should meet. I looked at them in preparation for the debate. Some examples are quite close to what we are talking about, such as gas reservation projects and liquefied natural gas reception facilities. For those to meet the NSIP regime criteria they need to hold 4.5 million cubic metres of gas a day. An individual fracking well and an individual fracking pad would be less than one hundredth of the size required by those criteria. That is the fundamental problem: the NSIP regime was not designed for this project and we should not use it.

The hon. Gentleman will have seen the recent research about the dangers of fracking near abandoned coalmines. Does he agree that there should be a moratorium until this has been properly investigated?

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the impact of shale gas—the right hon. Gentleman is also a member—I am extremely concerned by issues that Professor Styles suggests could occur in mining areas like ours if fracking goes ahead at scale.

I will try to wind up as I want to ensure that the Minister has time to speak. As I said at the beginning, the fundamental problem with permitted development and NSIP is that it takes local people’s voices out of the discussion. Nearly 4,000 people in North East Derbyshire have been involved in the discussion because they are hugely concerned about this project. Whether people agree or disagree with it—I disagree—we have to give people the opportunity to voice their opinions. The consultation on the table, “Permitted development for shale gas exploration”, says that

“the Government will strengthen community engagement by consulting on whether developers should be required to conduct pre-application consultation prior to shale gas development.”

There is no point in conducting pre-application consultations if these things will be approved no matter what.

Fundamentally, if we have a problem of a lack of public consent for fracking, which we do—we clearly do in some parts of the country, such as mine—we should treat the problem either by not bothering with the policy or by trying to change people’s views. My view is that it should be the former, not the latter. We should not try to treat the symptom by taking people out of the process. I hope that, at the end of the consultation, the Government will listen and this will not go forward. Taking people out of the process is why the proposals for permitted development and NSIP for fracking are fundamentally wrong, and I hope that they do not go ahead.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to see so many engaged colleagues in the Chamber. I remain grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), whom I have met on many occasions to discuss at length his facts versus other facts. I will continue to engage with all Members; as they know, my door is always open to discuss any issue relating to energy policy.

As all Members know, given Ministers’ quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I am not at liberty to comment on any particular applications or any local mineral plans.

I will make a little progress and then I will happily give way. To be clear, Government Members stood on clear manifesto commitments to develop a shale industry in this country and to bring forward proposals to review permitted development rights and the NSIP regime. We put together an extensive, long-running consultation so that all views, which are profoundly held on both sides, had an opportunity to be expressed.

As I said, I will make a little progress and then I will give way. I welcome a longer debate on this issue because I am a passionate advocate of convincing people of the scientific evidence for climate change. Everything that my Department has done has been based on scientific evidence. I find it profoundly disturbing that, when it comes to exploring the potential of an industry, we refuse to accept the science. I have met—[Interruption.] I am not giving way.

Order. If the Minister chooses to give way, she will do so. In the meantime, Members need to behave with a little bit of decorum.

Thank you, Mr Howarth. Decorum is always the watchword.

I have met, and continue to engage with, many of the scientists who have put out studies relating to fugitive methane emissions and the seismicity question, which is of course concerning. I find when talking to those scientists that, behind that, they have a fundamental aversion to using any form of fossil fuel. Indeed, the briefing that many Members received today, and which I have seen, says that fossil fuels should stay in the ground.

When the hon. Lady goes home and turns on her energy supply to cook her children’s tea, she will probably turn on—

She says she has a solar panel. [Interruption.] Can I please make some progress? Some 70% of homes in this country— maybe more—rely on gas to cook children’s teas. We also rely on gas for a substantial proportion of our energy supply. We have a choice: we can continue to import increasing amounts of foreign gas and effectively be at the behest of other nations that do not share our interests, or we can soberly, calmly and scientifically assess whether we can develop the shale gas industry.

I refer all Members to our superb Committee on Climate Change, which will tell them that, in every single scenario for reaching our carbon dioxide reduction targets, gas is in the mix. I am happy to debate the safety and responsibility of the industry in terms of doing that correctly, but I will not set this country’s energy policy based on an ideology premised on using 100% renewables now, which cannot be delivered at the right price. If Members accept that—[Interruption.] No, I will not give way; I will respond to the points from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire.

Members will have received data today suggesting that the vast majority of the British public are opposed to shale gas exploration. That is not true. The data suggest that 13% of people strongly oppose it, almost 50% of people do not have a view, 15% support it and 2% strongly support it. Most people do not have a view on this because they understand that being at the behest of a foreign gas provider is probably not great for British energy sovereignty. Many coalmining communities also understand the value of high-value jobs and economic investment in their areas. That is why I urge all Members—[Interruption.] I am not giving way.

Order. The Minister has indicated that she will not give way, certainly for the time being. Members standing up and asking her to do so after she has said she will not does not make a lot of sense. Perhaps she will indicate at some point if she is willing to take interventions.

I will move on to the substance of the debate and respond to the points from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire on the decision-making process.

It is in no one’s interest—in Government, in local government or in a community—for the planning process to be where it is today. We are stuck in a morass of protest and countervailing information. Frankly, I pity any local councillor who gets an application on their desk, because they will shortly have a travelling circus of protestors to deal with, most of whom do not hail from the areas where these sites are located. We then have policing issues and protestors blocking roads and preventing young children from getting to hospital. That is an entirely unacceptable way to express democracy in our country. [Interruption.] I will certainly not give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) at any point.

I will certainly not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

As set out in our manifesto, we intend to consult on what can be done to the planning process. As well as looking at moving production rights into a national regime, as we have done for other complicated energy sources, we have considerably increased the level of support for local authorities and local decision makers. We have set up training; we have provided funding. I will shortly appoint a shale gas commissioner, who will have deep and extensive constituency knowledge of the issue and will be out there, helping local residents to understand some of the challenges that exist. To put the myth-buster in place again, we are not overriding local decision making; there are plenty of opportunities for decision makers to express their views in the pre-consultation stage, as is done for other complicated and difficult energy policies.

There is another myth I want to bust, after which I will be happy to take some interventions. Some talk as if we are not in a country that prides itself on environmental regulation, but we have the strongest environmental regulatory regime for offshore oil and gas production in the world. I find it perverse that political parties north of the border promote offshore oil and gas and those regulatory controls with gusto, but when it comes to applying exactly the same—indeed, more rigorous—regulatory standards onshore, those parties suddenly turn a blind eye to energy sovereignty and cheap sources of fuel that are entirely consistent with Britain’s global low-carbon leadership. We will not have energy policy in this country set by politics and ideology; we will deliver cheap energy, low-carbon energy, and energy that is consistent with energy sovereignty.

I am disappointed by the Minister’s response so far. I put on the table some clear views about planning, but she has spent the first eight minutes of her speech not talking about planning. The reality is that people need to be heard, and people are not being heard with this speech.

I am sorry, but I did begin by saying to my hon. Friend that I could not comment on individual planning applications. The purpose of the consultation is to get as many views as possible, particularly from those who are engaged in the planning process, about what the rights should look like. The floor is open for my hon. Friend to express his views, and all the things he has said today will be fed into the consultations.

A vast majority of respondents to the consultation on the national planning policy framework were opposed to fracking, as the Government’s own response set out, yet you are going ahead regardless. How can anyone have faith in any consultation process that this Government launch on fracking?

Order. Before the Minister resumes, the hon. Lady has said that I am going ahead, but I am not—the Minister is.

You are a master of restraint as always, Mr Howarth. The hon. Lady has been in politics for a while, and she will know, as we all do, the click-and-paste nature of so many responses to consultations.

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but she should check the number of responses she will get. As I have set out, based on the public polling data, the vast majority of people do not have a particular view on this issue. Many people understand, especially after the “beast from the east” and the Salisbury poisoning, that being reliant on foreign energy sources is not a great place for us. If the hon. Lady shares my faith in the Committee on Climate Change and its view that gas is an important part of a low-carbon future, she will know that many responses come from organisations that are profoundly opposed to ever burning a molecule of fossil fuel. That is not a sensible place for our energy policy to be in.

The constituency I represent has a history of coalmining; it once powered a nation. However, the people I represent do not think that fracking is an alternative to a meaningful industrial strategy. Why should my constituents be asked to take a huge leap of faith on behalf of fracking companies?

I am sure that the hon. Lady engages extensively with her constituents. I spend a lot of time talking to communities, and to the representatives of former coalmining communities. In many cases, they are convinced that shale gas exploration could bring high-value jobs and economic development safely to parts of the country that have been left behind by successive Governments.

I will expand on comments made by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron). My constituency is an area that can be fracked, and has a rich history of mining, especially in the village of Allerton Bywater. Because that history of mining is so long, there are many unmapped mine shafts and mine workings in the area, and a great many of my constituents are gravely concerned that, with the injection of water and the other things that are going on, there is a real possibility of geological movement and sinkholes. We are talking about a planning issue, and it is vital that the Minister hears on behalf of my constituents that the situation of communities varies hugely. Where there are former mine workings, there are real concerns about the geological impact of so many unmapped mine shafts.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the complexity of the geology. He is absolutely right that local geological knowledge and seismic management and measurement are, and will remain, a vital part of any exploration or production site. However, many of his constituents will have been told that there are massive seismic risks from any form of shale gas exploration. In fact, our environmental standards are so tight that if there is a seismic tremor less than that brought about by the rollercoaster on Blackpool seafront, that well process—

It happens to be true: the well process will have to be paused. I refer back to the fact that we have the toughest environmental standards for oil and gas extraction in the world. Other countries are coming to us and saying, “Could we use those standards, because we also recognise the opportunity presented by shale gas extraction?” Frankly, if anyone in this room believes that the UK, with its proud history of environmental regulation, would want to do anything to endanger its green and pleasant lands, they need to go away and have a nice cold drink.

As I have said, I have been working on this for eight years, and the Minister is absolutely right to highlight some of the progress that has been made, such as the traffic light system. I urge her to listen to the concerns of Members about permitted development and planning changes. I urge the Government to work with us in a constructive way to address those concerns, as they have in the past.

I thank my hon. Friend for his measured approach. He is looking at these developments in his constituency and working very closely with his local communities. He is absolutely right, which is why we have launched an extensive, extended consultation to ensure that we hear from as many people as possible.

I thank the Minister for her comments. It is quite clear that we need to be assured of what steps the Minister and her Department will take, and what criteria will be in place, to ensure safety is paramount. When doing shale gas investigation or mining in former mining areas, safety has to be paramount. Can the Minister give an assurance that it will be?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right; that is why our environmental regulatory regime is already the best in the world. Colleagues will see from various write-rounds that we are bringing together the regulators to form one virtual regulator, so there can be no doubt about what regulatory matters apply to which communities.

I accept that there is tight regulation on below-the-ground issues, but, above the ground, planning permission is currently required for non-conventional drilling. That will not happen if there is permitted development, and the ability of local authorities to regulate lorry movements, for instance, will be taken away. There is huge concern about that, and I invite the Minister to look again at the proposals, because I do not believe there is a parliamentary majority for them.

I will give way shortly. I want to assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that the challenges presented by waste water and traffic movements are driving innovation and investment in the industry. The industry is working with the National Physical Laboratory to innovate, to reduce those challenges and to create something that we can export to other countries that are desperate to improve.

Thank you, Minister; you have been very generous with your time. To me, this strikes at the heart of a community’s ability to determine its future. Local democracy is undermined if Whitehall is seen to be undermining it with a consultation that, in the case of Bury, ignores votes that have already taken place about whether we want fracking in our town. We determine the investment; we determine the plans for jobs and homes interpreted by Government targets; and we have already rejected the Government’s plans for fracking. Will the Minister take seriously the voice of the people on this issue?

There has been an unprecedented level of decentralisation of decision making under this Government. The hon. Gentleman referred to homes and business involvement; all of those issues are being devolved.

The challenge in this space remains that there are far too many people shouting fact-free nonsense about the process. I was at the conference of the parties in Germany last year. Germany has turned its back on nuclear power—a policy that some in this Chamber agree with—and as a result, its emissions are going up as it burns more coal. That is a country in hock to ideology. In this country, we make energy policy to drive down our emissions, keep costs down for consumers, and create a competitive advantage and energy sovereignty. That is why we are going through the process of consultation.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.