www.counterbalance.org.uk

 

fylde counterbalance logo

search counterbalance

plain text / printout version of this article

countering the spin and providing the balance


 

A Few Fracking Notes

Aa Few Fracking NotesThis is another article about fracking, and in case any of our readers are worried, we'd just like to say that counterbalance has not gone 'monoculture.'

It's just the reports we're doing of what is a really important, national scale, precedent-setting Public Inquiry in Blackpool, are causing our usual occasional fracking articles to get a bit behind, so we've snuck this one in.

But just before we get going, we also thought our readers might like to know we've had a couple of new milestones this month, one of which is our biggest ever monthly readership.

January 2016 saw 16,000 counterbalance website pages read (that's either 16,000 people reading one page each, or one poor demented soul reading 16,000 pages). February saw another 10,000 page reads.

Furthermore, the number of readers who are signed up to receive an email when we publish a new article has just gone over 400.

If anyone else would like to join our email notification list, please just click the link and send an email to notify@counterbalance.org.uk


 GETTING THE RIGHT PLAN

We came across an interesting exchange in Hansard just before the Public Inquiry started in Blackpool....

Hansard: 9 Feb 2016 : Column 2114

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton (Lab):
"My Lords, I declare an interest as a Lancashire resident. Will the Minister care to take away and reflect on the fact that there is great concern and anger at government suggestions that local people should be taken out of the decision-making process for future fracking? Will he care to comment on the fact that all the fracking decisions this Government have taken tend towards the north? Does he envisage any fracking taking place for oil or gas in the south of England, where Conservative support is concentrated?"


Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth:
"My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that decisions on fracking are taken by planning authorities; they are not a matter for the Government. She will be aware that there are potential fracking areas throughout the country. That, of course, will be something that planning authorities will take forward."

Shame we couldn't invite him to Blackpool to explain that view to the Inquiry.


 ONE BIT OF SILLINESS

One of our readers sent us a link to a You Tube website where someone with a sense of humour wrapped around a serious message has uploaded a tongue-in-cheek anti-fracking song in the style of George Formby, complete with banjo and references to flat caps and whippets.

The George Formby Frack Attack

You can click on the picture or follow this link to see it for yourself...

 HEALTHY NEW TOWNS

We heard today (from no less an authority than a friend's Daily Mail) that Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, (and eventually 170,000 Britons) is going to live in one of "ten new housing estate developments designed to help Britons live longer by staving off obesity and dementia, and these are being pioneered by the NHS."

We had to check the calendar because we did notice it was the first of the month, and for a few minutes we though we had skipped March altogether and gone straight to April.

But no, the Mail went on to report that these 'healthy areas' will trial a range of different measures - for example some will ban takeaway outlets from opening near schools, while others are planning to install signs prompting the public to walk rather than drive.

Measures will also include pavements with special surfaces to prevent falls, and 1960s-themed cafes to help elderly people with dementia feel more at home.

The Mail also reported "The health chief is hoping they will become the blueprint for all new residential areas, with the aim of preventing ill-health across different generations"

We're really pleased about the plan for 1960s-themed cafes to help elderly people with dementia feel more at home - it's just what counterbalance has been waiting for all along, ever since our towns were taken over by those horrid American style Costa's and Starbucks who tried to persuade us to live like the mind-numbing American soap opera "Friends".

And we're especially pleased that one of these Healthy New Towns will be right on our own doorstep at Whyndyke Farm, so we hope we will easily be able to get to the 1960s dementia friendly cafe, (and that we will be able to remember how to get back).

One blot on the horizon that did cross our mind was the prospect of Cuadrilla's proposed fracking site at Preston New Road being just across the Motorway from Whyndyke Farm, and the irony of the serious public health worries that are being outlined at the inquiry being in such close proximity to what will be a Healthy New Town was not lost to us.

Another thing not lost to us is that the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust's (and if you frequent 1960 style cafes like we do, that's a foolishly long name to try and remember)  'Harbour' - a 154 bed mental health hospital, which offers care and treatment for adults, is just on the edge of Whyndyke Healthy New Town, so it will be convenient for anyone coming to live here.

We wonder if it is Whyndyke Farm that Mr Stevens is planning to move to? If It is, we're sure lots of our readers would be only too happy to help him find an interesting spot to lay his head.

In the meantime, can we have a new Chief Executive for NHS England please?


On a more serious note, we picked up some interesting comments made to the Great Lancashire Fracking Inquiry by our County Councillors - and in particular County Councillor Chris Henig.

But we begin with comments from County Councillor Kevin Ellard who is the Deputy Chairman of Development Control Committee at Lancashire County Council.

 COUNTY COUNCILLOR KEVIN ELLARD

He said he spoke in a personal capacity and was agnostic on fracking, but did say he thought it needed 'gold standard' regulation, (We noted this is exactly what our own MP has been calling for right from the start of this process, but which has so far failed to materialise) adding:

"On the matter of regulation, I remain concerned about the proliferation of different agencies in the UK, each with their own specialist interest, and there is no one single overarching regulator that can command confidence in this emerging area.

There are also real questions of capacity to conduct their duties effectively in these straightened times of public sector austerity and relentless reductions in resourcing.

The overall regulatory regime is not sufficiently up to the job. This must be a concern to us all."

We regard this as a key issue, and we have no confidence that, in particular, the Environment Agency, even has the will, let alone the capacity and resourcing to stand up and protect us.

Their use of 'Environmental Permitting Regulations' to enable the process to go ahead, are nothing more than a license to pollute.

Just like the sale of religious Indulgences offering absolution from sin in the middle ages, the EA is offering Environmental Permits which pre-allow pollution to take place.

When we think about it, this process makes us really angry.

There can be only two reasons why any activity requires a permit or licence.

The first reason is as a method of extracting payment from the activity. (Such as a permit to lay a phone cable under your land).

But the second - and more common reason that permits or licenses are required - is because the process or activity being undertaken is inherently harmful.

Were it not harmful, no licence or permission would be needed.

So we create regulatory bodies that are intended to regulate and license the harmful activity (such as owning a shotgun) in order to be able to set standards that minimise the potential for harm, and to be able to remove that permission or license from individuals or companies where the standards are not met.

For us, it goes without saying that to issue permits to pre-allow pollution to take place, cannot be anything but wrong, and we have lost all confidence in the Environment Agency to be an effective regulator on our behalf.

Changing tack a little, Cllr Ellard continued:

"Mention has been made of the potential economic benefits should fracking go ahead in Lancashire. There are indeed some benefits, but in employment terms, these will be time limited and very modest.

Competitive to the detrimental impact that fracking would have on the tourism economy - which attracts around 60m visitors a year, generates around 4bn of revenue a year, and employs over 50,000 people, and it is plain to see that Lancashire's important tourism industry risks going into an unrecoverable steep decline should fracking commence."

He then added: 

"Regarding the Monitoring Arrays, there has also been the additional negative impact of widespread industrialisation of the rural landscape."

Both these are also very valid points.

But there is another, and it is this. As far as we understand the Planning system, the land on which Cuadrilla seek planning permission currently has no planning designation, and it thus 'defaults' to being classified as agricultural land for planning purposes.

But once planning permission is granted for each of the 'pair of semi's' sized monitoring sites, the planning status of that land will change (by virtue of the grant of permission) and it will become 'developed land'

We also suspect that even after it is physically 'restored' back to agricultural use, it's planning designation may not revert to agriculture in planning terms.

We would not be surprised to find it becomes 'previously developed' ie 'Brownfield land' in planning terms, and as we all know, future planning permissions to develop a brownfield site are generally much easier to obtain than for a greenfield site.

We haven't heard this mentioned so far in the inquiry, but we do wonder if it is a relevant consideration.

Moving on, we though the most underestimated and interesting comments came from Lancashire County Councillor Chris Henig

 COUNTY COUNCILLOR CHRIS HENIG

She is the County Councillor for Lancaster South East and - following training to qualify for a seat on the committee - she became a member of the LCC Development Control Committee who considered and determined the Cuadrilla applications.

She told the Inquiry in Blackpool she was speaking that evening of her personal views of that process, but she touched on, and confirmed something which we broke news about in the 'Unusual Moves At LCC?' part of our January 2016: Fracking Update

We said back in January that we were surprised LCC was considering an 'Urgent Item' which had not been published on its agenda, but rather it had been given to them at a meeting, and that this item was also to being treated as an "Exempt Item" with the press and public excluded.

It was about the Statements of Common Ground for the shale gas appeals.

We said at the time "The reason given for the urgency was that the Statements of Common Ground had to be submitted by 29 and 30 November and if this committee didn't see them, there was no other meeting before the deadline for submission to the Planning Inspectorate.

We can see there may have been a case for urgency here. We could also (just about) see a case for it being an exempt item (You wouldn't want the opposition to know what you were planning before you decide what the plan is).

But urgent items are sometimes urgent because officers don't want to give a committee time to undertake detailed consideration, so they become intentionally urgent as the deadline approaches. We're not saying this happened here, (we've no way of knowing), just that it is something that is not unknown."

When the minutes of that meeting appeared, they showed the draft 'Statements of Common Ground' had been given to the committee 'for information.'

We could just about see a case for this to be urgent business, but we saw absolutely no justification for it to have been an "Exempt Item" with the press and public excluded.

Subsequently, what County Councillor Chris Henig told the Inquiry at Blackpool FC last week has shed further light on this process.

She explained the background and the extent of evidence the Development Management Committee had considered, then went on to say....

".....Prior to the opening of this Inquiry, Madam, you asked Cuadrilla and Lancashire County Council to put together Statements of Common Ground.

As a member of the Development Control Committee I became privy to these documents very late on in the process, and was shocked by their initial content.

The included within that 'common ground' a number of areas where there had been no clear agreement.

To my mind, Cuadrilla had assumed that any issue that had not been raised as a reason for refusal had been regarded as an area of agreement."

What you see here dear reader, is confirmation of the fact that County Councillors were not adequately consulted on what statements the Council should agree with Cuadrilla regarding matters that were not in dispute.

That must be the case, because at least this member of the DM Committee was 'shocked' by their content when she saw them, and she was also informed of what the LCC Planning officers had been going to say 'very late on in the process'

The minutes of that earlier DM Committee say "The documents before the Committee were the most recent draft which had been submitted by the Appellant for amendment/agreement before being finalised and submitted to the Planning Inspector."

What we said at the time was "What we had here were officers - who had proposed granting some of the applications and who were obviously unhappy that County Councillors had disagreed with the advice they had given - appearing to accept the Statement of Common Ground that the appellant had prepared and submitted for approval."

It now appears even more clearly to us that either LCC's officers were wholly incompetent in carrying out their duties - at least to the extent that their incompetence 'shocked' at least one member of the DM Committee (CC Henig), or that LCC's officers were deliberately withholding what they had agreed with Cuadrilla until they regarded it to be the last possible moment - so as to leave the Committee insufficient time to make considered changes.

Whichever of these alternatives was the case, we have no compunction whatsoever in calling for the County Councillors to review the future of the officers involved in this decision - and to review the culture that exists within a department where this is considered acceptable professional behaviour - with a view to changing that culture from the top down.

Clearly from what CC Henig said, some members of the Committee did take the 'Statement of Common Ground' in hand, and beefed it up, because the LCC Development Management meeting after this one (ie on 9th December 2015) had a report saying:

"Shale Gas Inquiry - Update on the Statements of Common Ground

Special circumstances for use of urgent business procedure:

It was considered that this matter could not wait until the next Committee meeting on 20 January 2016 as it was considered appropriate that the Committee should receive an update on the matter following receipt of their comments on 27 November 2015.

The Officers presented an oral report on the joint 'Statements of Common Ground' which the committee had considered at their last meeting. The Committee was informed that the Statements of Common Ground had been amended to reflect the views and comments of the Committee and had since been forwarded to the appellant from whom comments were awaited.

Resolved: That the report be noted."

This report too had been 'press and public excluded' - and for those of us who watch such things, this had all the feel of an exempt item being used to cover officer embarrassment.

We're now more convinced than ever that, as in the matter of the decision on the actual applications, residents in Fylde have cause to be very grateful to their ever vigilant County Councillors for supporting them.

That being the case, we'll conclude by giving our readers a bit more 'airtime' of what County Councillor Henig went on to tell the Inquiry.

She said

"LCC was also asked prior to this Inquiry, to agree conditions with Cuadrilla in the event of it being successful in its appeal at this Inquiry.

Again, I was shocked by the weakness of the initial document.

Shouldn't we, for example, require Cuadrilla to make a guarantee that it will provide insurance cover for many years to come, against the potential impact of its fracking?

A number of people have suggested that anti-fracking campaigners put pressure on Councillors during the planning application process. I should like to assure you madam that wasn't the case.

Yes, we received Christmas cards from Cuadrilla. Yes, we were subsequently contacted by Cuadrilla to say that they were opening an office at Bamber Bridge. Yes we have had many emails from all parties over many months, but nothing more.

That Lancashire County Council should potentially have to pay costs, to defend the democratic process that is in place, is, I believe, immoral.

The Committee made its decision as a democratically elected body and should not be punished for that decision not being to the liking of any of the involved parties.

There was no predetermination on the part of any of the County Councillors who sat on the Development Control Committee. We did our best. We listed to the evidence before us and voted according to our judgement.

Our Council and its council tax payers should not be penalised."

We simply couldn't agree more with her, and we are grateful for her vigilance.

We also contrast her stance with those from Fylde who have not spoken at the Inquiry

 SO WHO IS MISSING FROM THE INQUIRY?

Well, we were pleased to see that Ben Wallace MP, whilst unable to attend in person, had sent an emissary in the form of Alf Clemson to speak in one of the public sessions at the inquiry on his behalf. But this did serve to highlight the fact that Fylde's own MP - in whose constituency these applications mostly fall - has not so far seemed able to do the same thing.

Mind you, there are still another two dates for public speaking, and in any case, we understand he's busy chap with all the Enterprise Zones, and things going on at Aerospace, not to mention all the work associated with his 'Woman of the Year' event (for which we were delighted to hear that Pat Davies has been short listed)'

But what we do really struggle with, is the complete absence at the Inquiry of any of councillors from Fylde Borough's Conservative ruling group - the ones who seem so keen to take control of everything and exclude all the non-Conservative councillors from any significant contributions, and whose chief effort seems to go in to producing positive press statements about how well they think they are doing.

Fylde is their patch for heaven's sake.

Do none of them have a view about the impact that this appeal may - or even may not - have on, say, tourism in Fylde?

As the lead individuals in Fylde's tourism promotion, do the Conservative Chairman and Conservative Vice Chairman of Fylde's Tourism and Leisure Committee not have anything to say that would help the Inspector form a view on such matters? Have they even thought about it? Have they discussed and debated it in their Committee?

Given that Fylde will have the role of noise assessment and control if this appeal is allowed, do the Conservative Chairman and Conservative Vice Chairman of Fylde's Environment, Heath and Housing Committee have any interest in what the Inquiry is hearing about the risks to the Environment and about noise and about public health? We can only wonder. Have they discussed this matter in their committee and come to a view about it? Have they been to the Inquiry to see for themselves? No they have not.

Do the Conservative Chairman and Conservative Vice Chairman of Fylde's Planning Committee have a view they could usefully pass on to the Inquiry about local knowledge of the area, or on matters of planning such as transport and noise and things ancillary to the County Council's determination of the application. Well, if they do, we haven't heard a peep.

Where are these people hiding?

Is it from public view?

Dated:      1 March 2016


info@counterbalance.org.uk

To be notified when a new article is published, please email 
notify@counterbalance.org.uk