[Relevant document: Eighth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2017-19, Planning guidance on fracking, HC 767.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered use of permitted development and the nationally significant infrastructure project regime for shale gas exploration and production.
First, may I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this important debate, which I am honoured to lead? I also thank colleagues from all parties who have turned up to contribute, even though we have had a rather long and difficult week.
This debate follows two over-subscribed Westminster Hall debates. Last October, the Government consultations on giving shale gas exploration permitted development rights and classifying sites under the national significant infrastructure regime came to an end. The Government have yet to publish their responses to those consultations and are instead choosing to push the issue into the long grass. The first two Westminster Hall debates on this subject made one thing clear: Parliament has a view and would like to be heard. The proposed measures to give shale gas exploration permitted development rights and to classify sites under the national significant infrastructure regime are a bad idea for many reasons, but I shall focus on two central points.
First, to give fracking companies access to permitted development rights under the mantle of nationally significant infrastructure deprives local communities of a voice. Secondly, and even more fundamentally, fracked fuel is a fossil fuel. To support the new development of any fossil fuel is a travesty, given that the threat of global warming should urge us all to rethink completely how we produce our energy.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady has secured this debate and congratulate her on the way she has started it. Does she agree that the context of the Government encouraging fracking is bad enough, but the way in which they have treated renewables, by making them so difficult through the planning process and completely cutting away the subsidy regime, means that renewables are now at a standstill? It is a disgrace.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She said that fracking is a new fossil fuel sector, but is it not right that shale gas would simply displace imports, rather than create additional demand on gas-fired power generation?
I have been involved in the fracking debate for a long time—since 2014—and just to say that it is a bit less of a fossil fuel than the gas we are importing is the wrong argument. It is a fossil fuel and it contributes to global warming; we should not explore these old-fashioned ideas about how to produce our energy.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we should not open up a new fossil fuel front and increase the contribution to climate change; she is absolutely right about that. On planning, my local authority has now twice voted overwhelmingly against fracking in nearby West Lancashire, which affects my constituency as well, but the authority’s views are completely ignored by the approach the Government are taking. Does that not demonstrate that significant local interests should be taken on board? It cannot just be a national Government issue in respect of permitted development rights.
Absolutely. There are two big wrongs here: first, it is a fossil fuel industry that we should not support; and secondly, we are overriding local communities and not allowing their voices to be heard. I feel for the communities in Lancashire and the way they have been treated. It is simply wrong. As somebody who used to be a local councillor, I cannot agree more on how wrong it is if local councils and communities are not being heard.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her powerful speech. On community engagement, does she recall a former Conservative Minister saying that fracking could take place in the “desolate” north? This is not good enough. My constituents do not want fracking and communities should be listened to.
This country has made great strides, and we are leaders, but we will fall behind badly if we do not keep up that lead. That is what worries me. Things have gone badly wrong in the last three years. We are living through a global climate crisis and we must align our policies to become carbon zero before 2050. I am sure the Government have read the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
I have been campaigning against fracking since 2014. In Bath, not only is there concern about global warming; there is concern that fracking will interfere with our hot springs, causing unknown damage to the water table, our unique geology and the natural springs that are the very reason for Bath’s existence and prosperity throughout its rich history. There are additional concerns about the wider environmental damage, such as earth tremors, gas leaks and the huge water consumption the process requires. I do not know whether people have read the recent reports about water shortages. Why are we encouraging an industry that wastes water in this way? What are we doing? Why are we not listening to the environmental concerns?
My home is heated through a community energy centre. That said, I am talking about how the gas is produced. I am saying that fracked gas is a fossil fuel but that there are renewable gas alternatives that we need to explore and invest in, and which the Government should be prioritising.
I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to the House. I appreciate the point the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is trying to make, but we have been building an unprecedented number of houses in the last few years, and the 15,000 to 18,000 in my constituency will all have gas boilers. They did not have to. They could have been heated by air source heat pumps, for example.
I completely agree. Getting to carbon zero is a massive challenge and we must start today. We must think about how our new houses should be built, because the retrofitting of these properties will cost even more. All Departments need to put their minds to it.
These problems are not unique to Bath or the UK. We know from the United States that fracking operations can result in the contamination of the water table. The effect is wide-ranging. Sometimes people cannot even drink their own tap water because of the health risk. A report in 2016 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated exactly how the hydraulic fracturing fluid used to split the bedrock can contaminate groundwater and release gases displaced by it. Communities across the USA have been forced to try to mitigate these problems. We should not even go there. Why should we risk water contamination?
Added to all this is the amount of industrial infrastructure that will scar our countryside if these proposals are pushed through. Giving permitted development rights to shale gas exploration would in effect remove the control that local authorities usually have over the planning process.
On building infrastructure around these sites, does the hon. Lady agree that it is slightly hypocritical that the development arm of CDC Group—the Government-backed development bank—that invests in infrastructure outside Britain would not invest in shale gas because of the infrastructure and climate change risk, but for some reason we are happy to do it in our own country?
I certainly agree that there is a lot of hypocrisy around this issue. A wind farm was built over the communities of Greater Manchester in my old authority, and I remember people talking about the infrastructure that was built just to access the hills in order to put up the wind turbines; it was terrible. Fracking platforms need to move around all the time, and the infrastructure that we need to build to enable that is absolutely incredible. I do not think that people have ever put their minds to that point.
The hon. Lady is probably aware that satellite data over the United States shows that 5% of the methane from fracking is leaked through fugitive emissions. Given that methane is 85 times more powerful than CO2 for global warming, that makes fracking nearly twice as bad as coal for global warming. Does she therefore agree that under no condition should we go ahead with fracking?
I certainly agree that we do not really have comparative data. Fracking is hailed as this new thing that would reduce global warming, but it absolutely does not.
Giving permitted development rights to shale gas exploration would mean local communities being removed from the decision-making process. That is one of my biggest concerns. This issue was picked up by the report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which concludes:
“Shale gas development of any type should not be classed as a permitted development. Given the contentious nature of fracking, local communities should be able to have a say in whether this type of development takes place, particularly as concerns about the construction, locations and cumulative impact of drill pads are yet to be assuaged by the Government”.
I really have to get on now.
Since the Government proposals were announced, 300,000 people have signed petitions against them and 40 councils have passed motions to reject them. With such widespread opposition, giving fracking companies access to permitted development rights would not simply speed up the process; it would serve to muzzle opposition, effectively silencing local communities. This is outrageous and I hope that colleagues across the House will join me in voicing their strongest opposition.
The consultation that looked at making larger fracking sites part of the nationally significant infrastructure regime is entirely incoherent and, frankly, dangerous. According to the Select Committee report, there is no precedent for this classification. Shale gas extraction sites fail to meet the criteria that normally determine nationally significant infrastructure. The report suggests that this issue would undermine the ideals on which nationally significant infrastructure was founded, and would damage the relationship between fracking companies and the communities they are placed within. Combined with permitted development rights, this adds to the Government’s callous attempt to take the decision-making process away from local communities. Shale gas exploration and extraction would be a decision for private companies and the Government, bypassing those who are most affected by it.
Let me turn to the climate crisis. The big problem that we face is the Government’s energy strategy and our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Fracking is not sustainable, and even classifying it as a transitional fossil fuel does not stand up to the science. It recently emerged that investing in fracking would produce as many carbon emissions as 300 million new cars. It is blatantly obvious that the Tory Government favour fracking over renewable energy. The Environmental Audit Committee found that investment in renewable energy had fallen by 56% in 2017, which was the greatest decline of any country that year. In May 2018, investment in renewables was at its lowest in 10 years, despite the claims by the Government that renewable energy is booming. That must be wrong if we must now urgently turn our attention to becoming carbon zero before 2050.
The recently released IPCC report states that globally we must become carbon zero by 2050, if we are to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. Scientists have concluded that a temperature rise that is higher than that will bring irreversible damage. The IPCC report gives us 12 years to completely transition away from fossil fuels in order to prevent this from happening— 12 years. With the proximity of that deadline, how can this Government argue that now is the time to be rushing into a massive national project of shale gas production? My view, which I hope will be shared by others in this House, is that they absolutely should not. We must reinvest in renewable energy. This Government have removed subsidies for onshore wind and have spearheaded a 65% cut in subsidies for household solar panels. The 2017 Budget ruled out additional investment in renewables before 2025. Yet communities up and down the country are asking for more investment in renewables. Only a few weeks ago, our streets were filled with schoolchildren who were making their voices heard and saying that the climate crisis is the biggest issue for them.
We urgently need a culture change. All Government Departments should have sustainability and a zero-carbon target at their core. As a developed country, we should lead the fight against climate chaos, but this Government have gone in completely the opposite direction. Policies such as those proposed by the Government stand in the way of progress. This Government cannot keep prioritising big oil over the urgent need to combat climate chaos. They have to drop these proposals. As a country, we must legislate in a way that restricts fossil fuel industries and instead invests heavily in renewable energy. There is no time to lose. We owe it to ourselves and future generations.
It is a great privilege to be able to speak in a debate of such importance to my constituency. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for applying to the Backbench Business Committee for it. It follows in the path of a similar debate that I held in Westminster Hall at the end of last year. That debate, too, was heavily oversubscribed. I will therefore focus my comments on one or two significant areas.
I was elected in 2010. At the point of my election, it became very clear that shale gas activity—or, at that time, just gas activity—was taking place in my constituency. I would urge caution on Labour Members before they make this whole thing very political, because it was the actions of the previous Labour Government that delivered shale gas to my constituency. I say to the Liberal Democrats that it was a huge privilege to work in the then Department of Energy and Climate Change as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), who is in his place today. Much of the work that was done on putting in traffic lights and some of the regulatory framework should have been done by the Labour Government before they gave the green light to proceed with shale gas and fracking, but none of it was.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making those points. I hope he can confirm that in those years we allowed local democracy to function. I opposed people who were arguing for permitted development, and opposed the idea that this should be some sort of national infrastructure project. We put on, after vast consultation, very strict regulation with regard to seismicity, and we had his support for that. Will he continue with that support?
That is why I called the Westminster Hall debate last year and why I am on my feet today. It is absolutely critical that permitted development, which has a place in our planning system, is for, say, a small extension to a bungalow or a conservatory, not for an enormous industrial estate that will produce tens of thousands of tonnes of pollutants, have thousands of vehicle movements per year, and so on.
I thank the Minister and the Department for listening to the case that I and local people put with regard to the Roseacre Wood site in my constituency. That was a long-running case that had gone through a number of stages in the planning process, including two planning inquiries. We made the case that the site was unsuitable, primarily because it was up country lanes, and regardless of how we tried to cut it, the traffic management plan simply did not work. I am not sure where traffic management plans fit in under permitted development. A fundamental reason why a site was turned down would not be a consideration under permitted development. If the Minister is looking for a reason why this proposal does not stack up, he should refer to Roseacre Wood and the decision tree that kicked in. It was turned down on those grounds, and therefore the Government simply cannot proceed with the permitted development proposals.
I absolutely agree. The Minister has a difficult decision to make, because the planning system for shale gas simply cannot continue as it is. After various appeals, the planning process for Preston New Road and Roseacre has been going on for years. It is not good for local communities to have this hanging over them, nor does it favour local democracy, because the powerful can hire lawyers and basically game the system to suit them. The planning system in its current format must change and needs review, but permitted development is not the route to go down.
On the issue of local democracy, a lot of nonsense is talked when it comes to Lancashire County Council. It is said that Lancashire turned the Preston New Road site down and then Ministers forced it on them, but the reality is that planning officers at Lancashire County Council recommended that the site should go ahead on planning law grounds. Those people who were complaining about the Secretary of State giving Preston New Road permission to proceed cannot then celebrate when the same process refuses Roseacre Wood. The planning system sometimes gives us what we want, and it sometimes gives us the opposite of what we want. I am afraid that we cannot trim our argument to suit our case.
Absolutely. Time is against me, so I will not give way again.
It is important that the Secretary of State bears in mind the concerns raised by local communities and Members such as me, and that we work together in a constructive way to ensure that permitted development is taken off the table, because it is not a sensible route to go down. The planning system must be reformed to ensure that there are consistent and transparent opportunities for input from local communities, that the process does not drag on for years and create a shadow over parts of our countryside, and that we give planning guidelines on what a suitable site looks like and what sites people should not frankly waste their breath considering.
I want us to move towards a situation where renewables provide the overwhelming majority of electricity output, alongside a contribution from nuclear. Until we get some movement on battery technology and other forms of the next stage of renewables, gas will play a part. On the cold day in February when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine, gas does not play a part. Shale gas can only play a part if we can say hand on heart that it is done safely, that it has robust regulation and that it is taking communities with it, not being done to them.
I call on the Government to continue the work that has been done. Let us celebrate the huge amount of positive change that has taken place as a result of listening to concerns from Members such as me and ensure that permitted development is not a tool that the shale gas industry can deploy as part of the planning process.
I came to this subject 10 years ago as a neutral, because I have a scientific and engineering background and am usually driven on issues such as this by the evidence, rather than political or ideological reasons. I deeply believe that we need a very varied energy mix for this country, and obviously as much renewable as possible, but I still think that nuclear power has an important role to play because it is much safer nowadays. In a very unstable world where we still need carbon fuels—with Russia and countries in the middle east and north Africa producing oil and gas—it is very important that we have our own indigenous carbon fuels that we can turn to as and when we need to. I was therefore quite agnostic when it came to the development of shale gas production in Lancashire.
I thank the House of Commons for producing an excellent paper on shale gas and fracking on 6 November, because it has provided a great deal of background on and insight into the issue. Until fairly recently, the issue hinged on exploratory development in Lancashire and, if I may, I will look back at what has happened in Lancashire in the past. On 1 April 2011—getting on for nine years ago—Blackpool, which is not far from my constituency of Preston, experienced seismicity, or a tremor, of 2.3 on the Richter scale, which was far too large. On 27 May 2011—again, nearly nine years ago—there was a subsequent tremor of 1.5 on the Richter scale. We were told that this was due to fluid injection into a fault zone, and that the fracking company, Cuadrilla, had already mapped out parts of Lancashire and knew exactly where the fault lines were so that it should never occur again.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate speech. As a fellow Lancashire MP, I am sure he also hears from his constituents about their concerns about earth tremors and earthquakes caused by fracking. In response, the Government have brought in a traffic light warning system. Many of my constituents are concerned that that traffic light warning system is maintained and stays in place, despite the pressure from some fracking companies. Do his constituents tell him the same?
Yes, my constituents do feel the same, which is why I have risen to speak on this important subject. The city of Preston is obviously very close to these fracking sites.
To move on, the Government have insisted that controls are in place so that operators will have to assess the location of faults before fracking, to monitor seismic activity in real time and to stop if a magnitude greater than 0.5 on the Richter scale is detected. The figure of 0.5 is the one promised throughout the time that the developers were going through the exploratory phase and the development phase before they turn to production in Lancashire.
It is good to see the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) in his place. He was the Secretary of State at the time, and I recall being present in his office when he gave a great number of assurances about how fracking would be conducted in Lancashire. Of course, things have turned out rather differently from what he said at the time. He was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change between 2012 and 2015, and he made the following statement to The Guardian. He said:
“I wanted to make sure that…we have tough regulations to tackle things like methane emissions and any pollution to make sure that we have got things like water sustainability right.”
He went on:
“If we are going to do fracking we have got to make sure that it does not hurt our environment and local communities benefit from it.”
We have yet to see local communities benefit from it. With coal, people in the north dug the coal, but it was those in the south and around London who made the profits from that. I do not want to see the same happen with fracking.
Since then, local communities have been subjected to much higher levels of seismic activity. Over a two-week period in November 2018, there were something like 30 recorded events of seismic activity with a 1.1 magnitude tremor. That is twice the level indicated by the former Secretary of State, the Government at the time or Cuadrilla itself. The people of Lancashire have had enough of this. I came to this as an agnostic, and as somebody who wanted to believe that 0.5 was the level Cuadrilla was going to stick to. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey, told journalists at a briefing in 2019 that the limit could safely be raised to magnitude 1.5 since that was a level similar to vibrations caused by a heavy bin lorry. I am sorry, but that is not what was promised. Since then, 50 geoscientists have sent a letter to The Times, on 9 February 2019, arguing that we should increase the limit even higher. That is not acceptable, and the people of Lancashire will not accept it.
As the House will know, my constituency of Arundel and South Downs is the most beautiful in England— 250 square miles of Sussex countryside, with no large towns but only small villages and small market towns. Half of it is in the protected landscape of the South Downs national park.
Nevertheless, there is oil extraction in my constituency, and it is entirely uncontroversial. There are small oil wells, and I have never received any complaint about them. I assume that oil tankers visit regularly to take the oil off site, but because the wells are located sensibly the public do not get excited about them. My neighbour’s constituency of Chichester has an oil well in the national park itself. It is similarly uncontroversial because it is near a main road, not a community.
Public interest in the proposed fracking in West Sussex takes two forms. There is concern about below-the-ground activity: will it have an impact on local water sources, for instance? Then there is concern about the above-the-ground activity: what will the exploratory drilling and then any potential further drilling mean for future traffic movements that will affect neighbourhoods? My experience is that communities get particularly exercised about proposals when they fear that the countryside in which they live is about to become industrialised and that there will suddenly be significant lorry movements through otherwise quiet country lanes and villages—not just during the exploratory period, but potentially afterwards, if large sources are discovered.
It fell to West Sussex County Council, as the responsible local authority, to assess whether one proposal for exploratory drilling, near Wisborough Green, a beautiful village in my constituency, was appropriate. The council looked at the proposed traffic movements down very narrow lanes and was very unhappy about the impact. Ultimately, the council, taking no view on the merits of fracking or drilling otherwise and not having a policy of animus against the extraction of the mineral, nevertheless thought that the lorry movements were inappropriate. It rightly reflected the concerns of the local community.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Traffic is a concern not only at drilling sites: the Knostrop treatment works in Leeds is one of only three places licensed to treat fracking waste water, which would discharge into the River Aire. There is concern there about not only traffic movement, but discharge into local rivers. There is an issue not just at drilling sites but also at treatment works.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. There are, of course, wider environmental objections; those might be addressed separately by suitable, strong regulation. My concern is whether it is appropriate for exploratory drilling and potential subsequent extraction of shale gas to be allowed by permitted development. I do not oppose permitted development rights in principle; it is sometimes appropriate for such rights to be applied. I support the application of those rights for the conversion of office buildings to residential premises because that has produced a large amount of housing that would not have been available otherwise.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We stood on many other manifesto proposals that have not seen the light of day. I gently suggest to the Minister, my good friend and near neighbour, that this is one proposal that it would be wise to keep firmly locked away in the bottom drawer. It would not be wise to allow that activity to come under the permitted rights regime, and that would not be an appropriate use of that planning procedure. It is appropriate for local authorities to be able to assess the impact of traffic movements and so on an activity in their area. Conditions can be put on permitted development, but that is not the same as having it looked at by the local authority.
All such issues are a question of balance, but I have discovered, in 14 years as the Member of Parliament for my beautiful constituency, that there is no non-controversial way to generate energy in our country. Yes, we all want more solar, but large-scale solar panels in beautiful countryside can excite just as much opposition as drilling. The question is whether activity is located appropriately. Some of the proposals that have been made in my constituency have been for inappropriate locations and the impact on local communities has not been thought through. Others are uncontroversial because they have been located more sensibly.
I do not have an in-principle objection to the extraction of oil or gas and I am not entering into the debate about the merits of fracking in particular. It is likely that there will only be oil, not gas, in my part of West Sussex in any case—although I may be wrong about that. I know that there is concern about the potential, random industrialisation of the countryside. We cannot allow that to happen through one tick in a ministerial box, and then find that we have no control over it subsequently except in protected areas of national parks. Local authorities have to have the ability to take a view about the impact of, for example, traffic movements, to decide whether levels are appropriate and, potentially, to impose conditions. That is why we should retain the existing planning regime for this activity, and why I would strongly suggest to the Minister that this is not a proportionate or sensible policy that he should pursue.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, especially in respect of solar power and community energy renewables.
When I was Secretary of State and had to deal with these issues, some people in the coalition thought that shale gas was the answer to everything and would reduce energy prices. They were extremely keen to push it forward. I was not one of those people. I was helped in my far more cautious approach by colleagues such as the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and others on the Conservative Benches, who realised that we had to be extremely cautious about the environmental issues and the local planning issues. One reason I am proud of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for calling this debate is my concern that the controls agreed by the coalition—being very strong on local democracy and risks such as seismicity—are in danger of being removed. I was concerned that this relatively new industry had to be safely regulated, for the environment and to take account of local issues.
When we looked at seismicity in particular, we took advice from the experts. We had advice from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering about what would be the right approach to regulation on seismicity. We consulted widely. I published the report that was given to me, and I asked for people’s opinions on it. We took a precautionary approach even to the evidence.
I came to the view, and accepted the recommendation, that the traffic light system was the way to go and that we needed a precautionary approach, not least because the geologists and experts were telling us that even a small seismic event underground could damage the casing of the wells and the bore holes of the fracks. I therefore accepted that we needed to be cautious, and it was important to give that reassurance to the public. We decided that we would go ahead, but only on that explicitly cautious basis.
In the ministerial statement I gave in December 2012, setting out that cautious regulatory regime, I said that it could perhaps be looked at again in due course. However, for the benefit of the House, let me be really clear about what we were saying at that time. We wanted a significant amount of evidence—this had to be evidence based. So far we have had very few fracking experiences in this country, so we do not have anywhere near the number of data points or the amount of evidence that we would need to possibly allow anything to go forward.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If the Government proceed to allow permitted development, that will be in sharp contrast to their planning approach to onshore wind. I had almost weekly battles with the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who was trying to stop onshore wind. We won most of them, but after the 2015 election the Government made it almost impossible to build onshore wind in England and Wales. That very negative approach to renewables stands in stark contrast to what the Government appear to want to do on fracking.
I bring that to the House’s attention because those are completely the wrong priorities, not least because of the climate change crisis. If anything, I have got more sceptical about fracking over the years, because the evidence—particularly after Paris—is that we need to be even more rigorous in reducing our fossil fuel usage. Now that we have gone from a 2° target to a 1.5° target, we have to push the renewable agenda further forward.
I would say to the Minister that when we were thinking about shale gas, we were thinking about making sure it was linked to technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which are now in abeyance. Without CCS, there is much less of an argument for fracked gas. Moreover, renewables technology has increased and improved dramatically. Prices have come down much further. We have seen storage technology come on. We are not going to need the gas that people thought we would need just a few years ago.
The relaxation of regulations, whether on seismicity or planning, is completely unjustified, and I hope the House will send a clear message to Ministers. However, I would go even further. Given that we have had such progress on renewables and storage, the case for fracking gas is much weaker than it was just a few years ago. I urge the Government to rethink their priorities. Let us bank and capitalise on the amazing success of new green technologies; let us not look backwards.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on opening today’s debate. I agree with much of what she said. I, too, oppose fracking, for two reasons. First, it poses a threat to my constituency, and I object to it being there. Secondly, I do not see the case for it from an energy policy perspective.
There is, however, an important distinction to make, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) tried to introduce to the hon. Lady during her speech. We should not conflate fracking—where we get the gas from—with the role of gas in our energy system in the interim. I absolutely understand the point she made about methane leakage and the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas. Fundamentally, however, the decision over whether to go big on fracking now in the UK is an immediate decision—it is a planning decision and an energy policy decision—and there is a clear argument against it. However, if we conflate that immediacy with the more measured approach that we need to take to removing gas from our energy system, that risks diluting what is a very important debate.
Fracking has no role in our future energy mix because, as a consequence of decisions taken by the Chancellor over decommissioning costs in the North sea, there has been a resurgence in North sea oil and gas exploration. That is helpful in meeting the UK’s short-term domestic needs, meaning that the expected economic upside of fracking will no longer be realised. Add to that the rapidly decreasing cost of renewables and storage, and the exciting opportunity of embracing hydrogen, which I would far rather were the mainstay of the Government’s future gas policy, and one can start to make a compelling case for not requiring fracking, whatever the safety arguments might be. There is simply no role for it in the UK’s future energy mix, but there is an interim role for gas.
I commend to the hon. Member for Bath, and other Members, the work that I have been doing with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) on the future of the gas grid. There is a real opportunity to introduce low-carbon gases into the natural gas mix in our gas system immediately, and to start to decarbonise, which will have a profound impact on the decarbonisation of heat. The longer-term goal is the arrival of a hydrogen based gas system that would meet the needs of decarbonising heat, and will also have an exciting role in transport and for inter-seasonal long-term energy storage.
Interestingly, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) mentioned carbon capture and storage. The real opportunity with hydrogen—particularly pre-combustion carbon capture and storage technologies—is that instead of CCS being something that one spends £1 billion a time on, if it is linked to the production of hydrogen and the emergence of a hydrogen economy, CCS becomes more affordable because it is part of that whole package, which is an exciting proposal.
I hope the Government can admit that what might have seemed liked a good idea five years or so ago, is no longer a good idea. The world has moved on, and we could be embracing many much more exciting opportunities if we just ditch fracking.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey). The Government are considering bypassing local authorities entirely and removing the need for planning permission for fracking, because fracking has little or no support in our communities. Ministers have been hypnotised by the success story in the United States, without considering the critical difference between the US and the UK, which is that the US has vast tracts of low-density land that it can exploit. For fracking to be a viable part of our energy mix in the UK, two things are necessary—tracts of land with low population, and broad-based community support—but we have neither.
The Bowland shale gasfield, which is by far the most sizeable in the UK, is where the viability of fracking will live or die. It covers land from Lancaster in the north to Sheffield in the south and Whitby in the north-east. One well—just one—has been introduced to that basin, in the teeth of opposition, and even that has lain dormant for many months due to tremors. The gasfield covers almost all the major metropolitan centres of the north of England: Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and, on the right side of the Pennines, Derby, Sheffield, York and north Leeds. It is an absurdity that the Government think that a fracking basin that covers a population that runs into many millions is viable.
Rather than recognise those inherent flaws, which are caused by trying to impose an industry with a dubious environmental record on a highly populated sweep of land, the Government are instead trying to override the local population entirely. If communities cannot exercise their democratic right to oppose fracking through the planning system, how can the Government maintain the presence of localism? There is no broad consent for fracking in the way that there often is for other uses of the national infrastructure projects regime.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that it was the elected members on Lancashire County Council who voted not to have fracking at Preston New Road, and that it is the Government who turned their back on those people—my constituents? Despite all their nods to localism, what the Government are saying is that localism and local opinion is well and truly buried.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There can be no pretence to localism when the Government are riding roughshod over the voices and rights of local authorities and local people, not least because of the documented seismicity risks. Since October last year the Preston New Road operation has triggered three red level tremors and 57 earthquakes, not to mention the risk to aquifers. Denying the local community a meaningful say is utterly anti-democratic and perverse.
It is not too late for the Government to rethink their approach and recognise that the obstacles they find in their way should not just be bulldozed through inappropriate legislation. At a fundamental level, the prospects for an advanced shale gas industry in the UK are completely and utterly flawed.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today. It is a pleasure to follow my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). It is also a pleasure to see so many people who have been involved in this discussion ever since I joined this place, particularly in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on the impact of shale gas. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this debate and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing it.
This is an incredibly important debate. Already, we have heard fantastic contributions from those on the Government Benches, and, in fairness, from those on the Opposition Benches. I think what we are seeing is the emergence of a cross-party consensus that we have a problem with fracking in our country. If there was a traffic light system to be applied today to this House, it would be flashing red that there is no majority for permitted development NSIPs—nationally significant infrastructure projects—or probably even for pursuing fracking in general in this country.
I say that not because I am an anti-fracker per se. I did not start in that place. My second job after I left university was as an oil and gas analyst for three years, so I came at this issue, like others in this debate, from an agnostic perspective. The problem with fracking is that when we unpick it and the economic prospectus on which it is based, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) indicated a moment ago, it falls apart. I am a pro-business Conservative. I believe in trying to fix our energy solution, and I believe that we cannot move straight to renewables, however laudable that may be, but if the prospectus on which we are talking does not work then at some point we have to say practically and pragmatically that we should go no further, and that we should invest our personal energies, our money, our capital and our effort in something else. That is why I am convinced that fracking does not have a place in the future energy mix of the United Kingdom and that the Government should abandon it. It is wasting time.
There are three problems with fracking. One is a people problem. The knowledge that people have about fracking has increased. As it has increased, support for fracking has decreased. The problem now is that there is a perception that the system is being pranged. The Government’s NSIP and PD proposals suggest that we could get them in in the same way as if we were building a kitchen extension.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We absolutely have to give local communities their own say. The community I represent in Marsh Lane has been clear that it does not want this proposal. It should not be forced upon them. It should not be compelled to take the 14,000 lorry movements over the next five years just for exploration. It should not be required that a light industrial estate be plonked in green belt that has been largely unchanged for the past 200 years and in a village of 800 people.
In the time I have left, I am going to read into the record again the actual bulk that will be there for five years: a 2 metre high perimeter fence; an additional 4.8 metre high combination of bunding and fencing; two to three cabins of up to 3 metres in height; acoustic screenings of up to 5 metres in height; up to four security cameras of 5.5 metres in height; a lighting rig of 9 metres in height; a 2.9 metre high power generator; two water tanks of up to 3 metres in height; a 10 metre high emergency vent; a 4.5 metre high Kooney pressure controller; a 4 metre high blow out preventer and skid choke manifold; and, for six months, a 60 metre high rig. That is in the middle of green belt. That is next to a field which, just a few years ago, was rejected as the site of a car boot sale for 14 days a year, but apparently we can stick a light industrial estate in the field next door. Fracking does not work in this country practically, economically or for the landscape.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who argued very well for his community. I recently said in this Chamber that I wanted to be able to look the next generation of Debbonaires in the eye when they are 18 and say that I had fulfilled my promise for us to stop climate change—for us to be the generation of policy makers who halted it and even managed to reverse it—but we are not going to do that unless we stop taking new fossil fuel sources out of the ground and invest instead in renewables.
Bristol has declared a climate change emergency. Local communities in my constituency are taking part in many different initiatives to do their bit, but local communities can do only so much, and we need national leadership. I really would like the Government to consider following Bristol’s lead and that of many other local councils around the country and declare a national climate and environment emergency, as Labour did earlier today, and take the policy actions that are needed. That includes stopping fracking.
In 2015, the Government declared that there would be no fracking in national parks and sites of special scientific interest, but I sat on a Delegated Legislation Committee—oh goodness, the thrill of those DLs—in which Government Members were suddenly shocked to realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) was pointing out that the Committee was about to pass a regulation allowing fracking under national parks and SSSIs in certain circumstances. The most that they were able to muster was an abstention, but we voted against it. That was not what we were led to believe when the Infrastructure Act 2015 passed through Parliament. The public and Members were led to believe that there would be no permitted fracking under national parks and SSSIs. As well as the argument about climate change, there is an argument about protecting the countryside.
Most of all for me, however, the argument is about climate change. I want this to be the generation of politicians who declared that national and international climate emergency and put it into every single one of our policies, making sure that with every single decision we take, we think about how it will either contribute to or mitigate climate change. The young people I met outside in Parliament Square three weeks ago and in my constituency on other climate strike demonstrations and in schools want us to do that. They want us to stop fracking and to invest in carbon-neutral technologies. They want us to be the world leader that I know we can be, and I urge the Government to follow their lead.
My comments centre on the need for gas, and I am on a slightly different page from the other people that I have heard speaking in the debate. I think that we will need gas, and it is a question of whether we import it or produce it. In my view, it is much better to produce it than to import it for many reasons, including the environmental benefits of producing rather than importing. However, as the Minister knows, I am against permitted development rights and nationally significant infrastructure project status for shale gas exploration.
The need is clear: we import half our gas today, and that will go up to 70% by 2030. Increasingly, it comes from all over the world—principally from Norway, but it includes Russia—and is used for 23 million homes. Gas might have a long-term future. Carbon capture and storage and the H21 programme in Leeds, where we are going to convert methane into hydrogen, mean that even in a zero-carbon future by 2050—which I am supporting, and I wrote to the Prime Minister on that basis—gas can still play a part.
I am concerned, of course, about how this issue affects my constituency. That is why I went on a self-funded trip to Pennsylvania to look at the infrastructure there. I met protesters, producers and regulators. I saw from Pennsylvania that fracking can be done well or badly. It is compatible with the landscape if it is planned properly. That is why I helped North Yorkshire County Council to produce a minerals and waste plan that had clear guidelines about surface protection in protected areas, no fracking surface activity in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and restrictions on proliferation. There should be a maximum of 10 well pads per 100 square kilometres. Some people think that that is a lot, some think it is not very much. In my constituency, I have conventional gas extraction. There are three well pads there that operate on that density, and most people in my constituency do not know even know that the well pads are there. In the short term, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) said, there is industrial activity, but that goes away. People who come to Kirby Misperton to see it would see a clump of trees—that is all they would see of a fracked well pad.
People should at least be cognisant of the reality of shale gas exploration. There are some problems that need to be solved. We need a proper, Government-backed remediation plan. It is not fair for landowners to pick up the tab if this goes wrong in the longer term, which is a likely event. We also need to do more to enable local communities to benefit directly from the disturbance and the nuisance that will doubtless be experienced: that benefit should go directly into householders’ pockets.
I am against both NSIP and PDR. This is the wrong thing to do. The Select Committee said that quite clearly, and the Government should withdraw their plans to push ahead with exploration of this kind.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), my fellow member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. Our Committee produced a report that focused not on whether fracking was good or bad per se, but on whether the planning guidance was right, and whether local communities had any real say and could address the impact of fracking through the planning system. As the hon. Gentleman said, we concluded that proposals on NSIP and permitted development were totally wrong. They are completely contrary to the localism agenda that the Government set out in the Localism Act 2011. During the Bill’s passage, the then Secretary of State talked of
“a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities”.
It appears from these proposals that that has gone into reverse.
In coming out against the proposal on permitted development, the Committee said that because of
“the contentious nature of fracking”—
which has already been demonstrated by a number of speakers—and the impact on local communities, those communities
“should be able to have a say in whether this type of development takes place”.
That, I think, is fundamental. Communities should not be excluded from the process.
It was very different when the Government introduced planning regulations on onshore wind. They said then that in order for a proposal to go ahead, it must be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities had been fully addressed and that the proposal therefore had their backing. So communities can veto proposals on onshore wind, but they can have no say in exploratory applications for the purpose of fracking.
As for NSIP, when we asked, “Why do the Government want to make these changes?”, the only answer that we received was, “Councils are probably delaying the consideration of applications.” We had plenty of evidence to show that that was not true, and that NSIP would not speed up the process at all. Indeed, we heard from Lancashire, where there had been complaints about the process taking a long time, that regulation 22 had had to be used four times, and the consultation had had to be paused and then started again because of extra information that the applicant had had to provide in response to questions from the public. There was no deliberate delay on the council’s part; the delay was part of the proper consultation and consideration.
The Minister took up his role after the consultation had started, and he never looks very comfortable when this matter is being discussed. I suspect that he is coming at it with a new eye; I hope that that is the case. I ask him to listen and to take account of the weight of opinion across the House, among his hon. Friends as well as Labour Members, and to conclude that whatever the merits of fracking per se, these two proposals are a row-back from the localism and the democratic agenda that we ought to be pursuing but are abandoning now.
There is no doubt that shale gas exploration, or fracking, has caused great concern up and down the country, but what is also of concern is the feeling that this Government are trying to move the goalposts and lock people out of being able to express their concerns. People from many different communities and, indeed, with many different political perspectives have been united against this heavy-handed and undemocratic approach, including people in my own area. On 18 October last year, Labour, Conservative and independent Cheshire West and Chester councillors voted unanimously to oppose the Government’s approach, and that cross-party consensus is building in communities throughout down the country. It is high time the Government stopped this dash for gas and listened to what communities are saying.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
By transferring responsibility for these decisions to a permitted development or centralised system, the Government are, in essence, making it easier to apply for permission to carry out fracking than to apply for a two-storey side extension to a semi-detached house. Friends of the Earth has warned that the plans
“pervert the planning process and could make England’s landscape a Wild West for whatever cowboy wants to start drilling and digging up our countryside.”
The Campaign to Protect Rural England calls it
“an outright assault on local communities’ ability to exercise their democratic rights in influencing fracking applications”
and adds that it
“reads like a wish list from the fracking companies themselves.”
If we are truly going to take back control, we should have a genuine democratic procedure, not a stitch-up that benefits a few private interests.
The Prime Minister has said that our climate is the most precious thing that we can pass on to the next generation, and we would all agree with that, but how can those fine words possibly be consistent with these proposed changes? The Committee on Climate Change has stated categorically that supporting unconventional gas or oil extraction is incompatible with meeting our binding targets under the Climate Change Act 2008. We have spent months in here trapped in a Brexit mess of our own making, and all the while the impact of climate change both at home and abroad is happening around us. Are we so wrapped up in our own squabbles that we fail to fully appreciate the enormity of this?
Last month, February, was so hot I was walking around for several days in a T-shirt, which was very nice at the time, but actually the Februarys I remember growing up in were pretty inhospitable. So while I was warmed by the rays of the sun I was haunted by the thought that once again we were experiencing unseasonably warm weather, and then I thought about the constituent who told me their daffodils had arrived in December, the recent reports that the world’s insect population is declining rapidly and the fact that places as nearby as Spain have lost 1 million hectares to the desert in recent years.
I fear that when we put all that together it is clear that we are sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe, and that unless we really begin to face up to the fact that we need to shift away from carbon-producing energy sources and we need to do it now, we will be the last generation to enjoy the benefits of industrialisation and it will it be the next generation who suffer the consequences of our selfish inaction.
Shale gas is 95% methane, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change methane is 85 times more powerful than carbon dioxide for global warming, although the Government have kept to the 2013 figure of 36 times. That means that given that fugitive emissions are 5%, fracking is almost twice as bad as coal for global warming, and NASA has satellite imaging showing that the amount of methane has grown exponentially, having plateaued in the 1990s. So if we are to fulfil our Paris commitments, we cannot go forward with fracking. But instead, we see safeguards, tax incentives and the displacement of renewables; we see the end of onshore wind, nothing much in terms of solar, not having the Swansea tidal lagoon and so forth. We should be going in a completely different direction.
Apart from the global warming issues, there is the issue of water. The Minister will know that millions of gallons of water with hundreds of toxic chemicals used as lubricants are pumped into the ground, and half of it then has to come back. Often it is carcinogenic or even radioactive. We simply do not have the infrastructure to treat that water; we have nowhere to put it, as they do in the United States. President Bush bypassed the clean air and clean water directive to allow fracking so that he would have a strategic gain over Saudi Arabia. We are not in a position to do that sort of thing. We cannot deal with the lorries, the transport and the wider environmental infrastructure.
When I was a member of the Council of Europe I put forward a paper, “The exploration and exploitation of non-conventional hydrocarbons in Europe”. It was adopted by France, and the Macron Government decided on that basis to abolish, and not continue with, fracking. I have a fracking Bill now, which I urge the Minister to look at. It says that at a minimum we should ensure that fugitive emissions are limited overall to 1% and 0.1% at the wellhead with capping and no flaring.
Our children are telling us about climate change. We should take that seriously, but with the possible advent of Brexit we may be in the hands of big multinationals using tribunals to fine us. If once they start fracking we withdraw tax concessions, they will fine us. In the case of Lone Pine v. Canada they charged the Canadian Government hundreds of millions of dollars because Quebec had a moratorium on fracking. Similarly Wales does not want to do any fracking, and if we go ahead with Brexit and with fracking as we are planning it, we will be under the cosh of multinationals as well as breaking our Paris commitments and ruining the future for our children.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). For me, the context of this debate is quite simply the deeply worrying issue of climate change. We face a stark choice if we are to avoid extreme and potentially unstoppable change to the climate: do we continue to develop and exploit fossil fuels, or do we leave them in the ground? It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop dangerous climate change if we do not leave fossil fuels, including gas, in the ground. We can and must take a more responsible and sustainable approach, and that is why we need to stop the exploitation of shale gas.
I also want to talk about the issue of local planning, which other Members have spoken about today. There have been test wells in eastern Berkshire and other parts of the south-east, as was mentioned earlier. Many residents in Reading, Woodley and the Thames valley have deep concerns about our local environment. In our area, there is a long history of concern about the effects of noise and pollution from major infrastructure projects such as the expansion of Heathrow and large-scale gravel extraction. The very last thing that residents in our part of England need is a major new environmental threat.
I am conscious of the time, but I just want to add my support for a range of other points that have been made today. In particular, I would like to support and endorse the concerns that have been expressed about the relative weakness of the planning system and about the Government’s policy on energy—particularly renewable energy—and their deeply mistaken policy of cutting the feed-in tariff and not investing in wind power, solar energy and other renewables such as the tidal power project in Swansea bay. These mistaken energy policies stand in stark contrast to the policies of many other Governments, including the last Labour Government.
I am afraid I am running out of time.
We have just 12 years left to reduce carbon emissions dramatically. Local communities around the country have serious and substantial concerns about fracking. Given the climate crisis and the need for radical change in energy provision, and given the indisputable local concerns, shale gas exploitation has to stop, and it has to stop now.
We hear a lot from some people about the benefits of firing on with unconventional gas extraction, but not, rather surprisingly, from some Conservative Back Benchers today. Perhaps the Government should listen rather more closely to the voices in their own party on this issue. We have heard about the jobs that it will create and the energy gap that it will fill, and many of these extravagant claims are being made with quite Trump-esque glee. This seems somewhat at odds with the reality of what this messy, dirty process would offer. If the UK Government want to take an evidence-based approach, they will also be forced to take a little more seriously the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence supporting climate change. They must balance this fact against the rather weaker case for pressing down on the accelerator in the rush to frack the English countryside.
We can argue one way or the other about the level of risks involved in the shale gas extraction process, including the possibility of groundwater contamination and the danger of induced earthquakes. There are a lot of unknowns that need more research, and I do not wish to dwell on the points that have been made very ably by others today. However, we do know that these are genuine concerns, because there are examples of these things happening in areas where fracking has been more rapidly pursued. This has led to many countries, including the Netherlands, announcing plans to bring shale gas extraction to an end. And we have to ask ourselves why even the citizens of the city of Denton in Texas, which is among the pioneers of fracking, have been trying to have it banned from their own backyard.
I am opposed to fracking, and the majority of my constituents are opposed to it. The majority of MPs who have spoken today also oppose it, largely because of the concerns expressed by their constituents. Can my hon. Friend reflect on the position that my constituents are in, given the approach that the Scottish Government have taken, compared with constituents of other colleagues across the House, given the approach that the UK Government are taking?
Absolutely. I think that all of us who represent Scottish constituencies are pleased by the much more cautious, evidence-based approach that the Scottish Government have been taking, and I would hope that the UK Government could learn from their example.
Perhaps a more thorough regulatory regime will reduce the likelihood of some of the worst public health and safety hazards that we have seen in the States and elsewhere, but frankly I would not trust this Government to ensure that the checks and balances were robust enough, and the rewards are simply not worth the risk. I hope that care will be taken properly to address the public concerns that have been expressed across England, but listening to people is not a great strength of this Government. Instead, the UK Government seem intent on slashing red tape and fast-tracking fracking through the planning process, bypassing local democracy and those pesky protestors who get in the way of things. I do not have a lot of faith in the Government putting public interest before that of big business.
Even if it were established that fracking could be done safely, and even if the considerable environmental impacts of the process could somehow be removed, no amount of regulation would prevent it from being a fresh new source of greenhouse gas emissions, and that is really not the way to go. One can disregard the evidence on climate change, deny its existence, look the other way and whistle a happy tune but, like all destructive diseases, the longer it is left, the harder it becomes to fight. Climate change is the biggest man-made crisis facing this planet—far bigger, even, than the bourach known as Brexit. The schoolchildren who took to the streets calling for action are right, and they deserve to be listened to. They are fed up with politicians carrying on as normal—people who are stuck in the past, but who have the power to rob them of their futures.
It is undeniable that we have a long way to go to move away from our reliance on oil and gas, both economically and in our lifestyle choices. Offshore gas will still play a role in the UK’s energy mix for the foreseeable future, and I recognise the continued importance of the jobs that are currently dependent on the industry. However, Governments must pull together internationally to tackle climate change, and that will require us to move on from our fossil fuel dependence, not embrace new forms. Diving headfirst into onshore fracking explorations is completely the wrong direction for energy policy.
The good news, however, is that we do not need desperately to seek more gas under people’s homes in order to keep on the lights. We have the onshore and offshore renewable technologies needed to establish a successful and sustainable energy industry. Scotland is leading the world in marine renewable energy and is lucky to have a highly skilled workforce to deploy and the wind and the waves to be harnessed. With a quarter of Europe’s tidal and offshore wind resources and 10% of its wave potential, this is where the unwavering focus for Government support should be.
Powers to issue and manage onshore oil and gas licences is devolved, and the debate over fracking takes on a different flavour at Holyrood, where a majority opposes progressing fracking and underground coal gasification developments. The Scottish Government have conducted extensive research and continue to engage widely with the public on the issue. After more than 60,000 responses, 99% were opposed to fracking. My constituents in Edinburgh North and Leith are not known to be shy of an opinion, and they have told me how appalled they are at the thought of unconventional gas exploitation damaging our local shores, and I agree. I welcome the Scottish Government’s cautious, evidence-led and transparent approach to policy on this issue. I urge the Minister to do the same and to put an end to this damaging dash for gas.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this important debate, which has produced a great degree of consensus across the Chamber. The Government should accept that fracking is both dangerous and exacerbates global warming. In Labour’s opinion, fracking should never be allowed, and it should certainly not be approved via permitted development or the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime instead of achieving local planning permission. Permitted development and the NSIP regime bypass both local decision-making processes and local people. To propose such systems for fracking determination is absolutely reckless.
On permitted development, such is the madness of the Government’s approach that even their own MPs have said it is nothing short of irresponsible and downright bonkers. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) spoke for just about everyone when he asked whether there is anyone on earth who thinks that fracking is equivalent to putting a small extension on the side of a bungalow.
The current planning position is that those seeking to develop shale gas exploration need to secure full permission. Decisions must be made in line with the national planning policy framework, and local planning authorities should also have a section on mineral extraction in their local plan. Those involved need to follow the minerals section of the online planning practice guidance, because it covers the principal issues that mineral planning authorities should address, such as noise, dust, air quality, lighting, visual impact and so on. It is not clear whether the impact on agriculture, safety, heritage, flooding or safeguarding land would be analysed or protected under the permitted development regime.
We recognise that there are exemptions to the proposed policy in respect of national parks and so on, but we think that the intrusive nature of shale gas exploration means that wherever it is intended to be, it should have to go through the local planning permission system. Also, the consultation is not clear about exactly what conditions would be applied to shale gas exploration, as they will be outlined in legislation, which obviously we have not seen.
We think fracking should not go ahead under permitted development, either with prior approval or not—and we are not alone. The Government’s approach to fracking has been criticised by almost everyone, apart from the fracking companies themselves and some Conservative Members. The Royal Town Planning Institute said:
“Blanket permissions for shale gas exploration in England are completely unsuitable and fly in the face of good planning”.
The institute has warned that the scale and sheer complexity of exploratory drilling “dwarfs” development covered by permitted development rights, ignoring the hugely sensitive local issues and environmental hazards associated with shale gas exploration.
The Government’s consultation on permitted development for shale gas exploration closed in October 2018, as did the consultation on approving planning permission for fracking under the NSIP regime, so where are the Government’s responses? How long are we going to have to wait? The NSIP regime suffers from many of the same drawbacks as permitted development, and using the NSIP regime to give planning consent would also override the local planning process. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has called on the Government to ensure that planning applications for fracking remain at the local level, as councils are best placed to understand their area. The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), excellently confirmed that point earlier.
The vast majority of consultation submissions were anti the Government’s approach. For example, Lancashire, Bolton, Brighton and Surrey are among the councils that have opposed the permitted development change, and some have called the proposals “an affront to democracy”. The Local Government Association responded to the Government’s consultation by saying:
“We do not support the proposal for a permitted development right for shale gas exploration. This will bypass the locally democratic planning system. People living near fracking sites—and who are most affected by them—have a right to be heard.”
My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) made that same point excellently.
A permitted development right for shale gas exploration would fundamentally undermine the local planning process and stop councils consulting on issues that are relevant to fracking applications, such as the potential for seismic activity, which we know has actually happened, and water pollution; the disposal of waste water; well construction and integrity; and water availability. Those points were made well by the hon. Member for Fylde, the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick), the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).
To date, the Government simply have not addressed the serious areas of concern that I have outlined, so it is time for them to think again, not only about permitted development for fracking and using the NSIP regime for determination, but about fracking itself. Conservative plans to force through dangerous fracking would release CO2 equivalent to the life emissions of almost 300 million cars. That would hugely add to climate change and undermine the Paris agreement, which is exactly what my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda) confirmed in the debate.
Community and environmental groups, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Friends of the Earth, have fought back against the Government’s proposals, including by taking them to court, but they have ploughed on regardless, including by withdrawing support for safer sources of energy, such as nuclear, tidal and onshore wind, as referred to in points made excellently by the hon. Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire).
In power, Labour will listen to the voices of communities throughout the country and ban fracking. Instead, we will invest in new renewables, end barriers to onshore wind and support new nuclear as part of a sustainable and secure energy mix. We strongly urge the Government to reject both the NSIP regime and permitted development as routes to achieve consent for fracking.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate, which I will call “shale 2”, as it is a repeat of the Westminster Hall debate promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley). It is clear from today’s debate that passions remain as high on this subject as on that heady afternoon.
I know the hon. Lady was not trying to position herself as the sole custodian of our precious countryside. My party overwhelmingly represents the British countryside and recognises the precious nature of our green and pleasant land. As an unapologetic environmentalist myself, I share that view. Being genetically from Yorkshire—although I was brought up in the north-west and educated in the north-east—I also have the interests of the northern half of this country at heart. I now happily represent a part of the same bulge of chalk as my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) —I also have oil production that goes on unnoticed and uncomplained about by my constituents—so this is a matter of extreme importance to me.
I emphasise that no final decision has been made on whether to bring these proposals forward. The consultations have now closed and the Government are currently considering the representations made and will issue a response in due course. These consultations are part of a range of measures to make planning decisions faster and fairer for all those affected by new shale gas development and to ensure that local communities are fully involved in the planning decisions that affect them.
As right hon. and hon. Members will know, my remit as Housing Minister in relation to shale gas development is focused on planning policy and delivering the related manifesto commitments. Given that hon. Members have raised matters beyond my remit, including energy policy and reported seismic events, I will refer those matters to the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), for a response.
The Minister has talked about having faster applications. Can he explain how precisely that would be done in a way that allows communities to be fully consulted? Furthermore, as I understand it, the Government have done no impact assessment on their proposals. Does he intend to do one at any stage?
I will come to those exact issues, if the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee will give me a moment.
In summer 2018, we consulted on whether permitted development rights should be expanded to include shale gas exploration development, including the circumstances in which this might be appropriate. I would like to make it clear that any potential permitted development right granted for shale gas exploration would not apply to hydraulic-fracturing operations or the production stage of shale gas extraction.
I should also emphasise that any permitted development right would cover only the planning aspects of the development and would not remove requirements under other regulatory regimes from the three regulators: the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority. It is important to note that all permitted development rights contain specific exemptions, conditions and restrictions to control and mitigate the impact of the development and to protect local amenity, and any potential permitted development right for shale gas exploration would be no exception.
A right could include things such as limits on the height of any structure, areas where a permitted development right would not apply and noise and operation controls. The consultation sought views on this.
The consultation asked exactly that question of whether there should be a restriction. I know my hon. Friend suggested—in the last debate and in this one—having density restrictions on well pads in particular areas. We will answer that question when we respond to the consultation.
The permitted development consultation and the NSIP consultation mentioned by my hon. Friend and the shadow Minister ran for 14 weeks and closed on 25 October. The Government are currently analysing the representations to the consultations and will publish a response in due course.
All hon. Members have highlighted the importance of community engagement in the planning process. I reassure the House that we remain profoundly committed to ensuring that local communities are fully involved in the planning decisions that affect them and to making planning decisions faster and fairer. These are long-standing principles that I am adamant we will stick to. However, we understand that communities feel that they are often not consulted closely enough before planning applications are submitted by developers to the local planning authority. That can lead to opposition to developments and a longer application process.
Engagement with communities at the pre-application stage gives local people an earlier say in the planning process and makes developers aware of issues of importance to the community that may need to be resolved. The planning system in the UK already provides an extensive legislative framework for community involvement. However, there is scope to do more. That is why we published a separate consultation—sadly, unmentioned this afternoon —on whether applicants should be required to conduct a pre-application consultation with the local community prior to submitting a planning application for shale gas development, which could further strengthen the role that local people play in the planning process. The consultation closed on 7 January. We are currently analysing the representations that we have received and will publish a response in due course.
We also welcome the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report of its inquiry on planning guidance relating to hydraulic fracturing and shale exploration. The report was published on 5 July 2018. We are considering its conclusions and recommendations, and will respond—to use a well-utilised word in this House—shortly.
I thank all hon. Members who have participated in this interesting and fascinating debate. Domestic onshore gas production, including shale gas, has the potential to play a major role in further securing our energy supplies. The UK must have safe, secure and affordable supplies of energy with carbon emission levels that are consistent with the carbon budgets defined in the Climate Change Act 2008 and our international obligations. The written ministerial statements on energy and planning policy made by the Secretaries of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and for Housing, Communities and Local Government on 17 May 2018 reiterated the Government’s view that there could be substantial benefits from the safe and sustainable exploration and development of our onshore shale gas resources.
We remain expressly committed to ensuring that local communities are fully involved in planning decisions that affect them and to making planning decisions faster and fairer at the same time. We have now delivered on our promise to consult on how best to develop our planning processes for both the exploration and production of shale gas development, while ensuring that communities remain fully involved. We are currently considering the responses from those consultations and will respond in due course.
I thank all hon. Members from across the House for their powerful contributions to this important debate. There is real anger across the board about the Government riding roughshod over local communities, and not allowing local people a voice on shale gas exploration sites. Across the board, there are concerns about the environmental impacts, particularly the industrialisation of the countryside, water contamination and seismic activity. But most of all—I wish the Minister would listen—there is a concern that fracked fuel is a fossil fuel. The Government should entirely change direction and invest in renewables instead. Let us change direction, take some action on climate change and ditch fracking.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered use of permitted development and the nationally significant infrastructure project regime for shale gas exploration and production.
Order. Colleagues, I have to inform the House of some corrections to yesterday’s recorded votes. In respect of Mr Nicholas Edward Coleridge Boles’s motion (D) on Common Market 2.0, the Ayes were 189, not 188. In respect of Mr George Eustice’s motion (H) on EFTA and EEA, the Ayes were 64, not 65. In respect of Mr Kenneth Clarke’s motion (J) for Jemima on customs union, the Ayes were 265, not 264, and the Noes were 271, not 272. The published lists of how Members voted will be amended. The decision on the Question in each case is unchanged.