B&NES Council has united across party political lines to oppose Government proposals to remove local democratic control over decisions about fracking.

Currently, fracking companies are required to apply for planning permissions from the local authority to drill or sample a well. They also have to gain planning permission before undertaking shale gas production. However, the Government is consulting on whether proposals for non-hydraulic shale gas exploration should be granted planning permission through a permitted development right and whether to include shale gas production projects in the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project regime. This would mean that the Secretary of State would automatically become the decision-maker for determining an application for future shale gas production projects meeting certain criteria.

Cllr John Bull (Labour, Paulton) who moved a motion opposing the Government’s proposals at a meeting of the B&NES Full Council said “In 2011 two earthquakes of 1.5 and 2.2 in magnitude were recorded in Lancashire, near Blackpool. They coincided with exploratory drilling for shale gas and a later study found that it was highly probable that the drilling set off the tremors. That was probably the first time that many of us had heard the term fracking: an ugly word which describes an ugly process. Fracking is the deliberate large-scale fracturing of subterranean rock to release shale gas which can be used as fuel.

“Since that year there have been some further test drills but no actual fracking has taken place. In order to speed things up, the Government is consulting on allowing test drilling to go ahead without planning permission thereby removing local democratic control over the first stage of a process which is still highly controversial. Furthermore the Government is consulting on removing decisions about the actual fracking process (as opposed to the test drilling) from local authorities and handing over responsibility to the Infrastructure Planning Unit, the national body of unelected advisers who already make planning decisions on major projects like Hinkley Point.

“This is at a time when the Government’s own social attitudes surveys have shown that only 18% of those questioned have a positive attitude towards fracking.

“Shale gas is a fossil fuel and therefore a cause of global warming and ultimately of climate change. It uses huge amounts of fresh water which subsequently becomes contaminated. This water has to be removed, either by lorries or by being disposed of underground leading to the risk of groundwater contamination. The contamination of the water supply is particularly important our area because of the sources for the Bath hot spring under the Mendips.

“There is also there is evidence of health damage within communities where fracking takes place in America, including skin rashes, nausea and vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It is likely that these were caused by leakage of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals to the air or water. There is the possibility of earthquakes caused by either drilling or the fracking process. There is the disruption to local communities caused by the construction of the site and the constant importation of water, sand and other chemicals alongside continuous noise and light pollution from drilling, flaring and the fracking process itself.

“It may be said that all the above are not conclusive evidence that fracking should be seen as unacceptable but they do suggest we take an extremely precautionary approach, part of which should be to retain local democratic control over the process. Planning permission for drilling would result in an industrial site with all the paraphernalia of drilling rigs, perimeter fences and acoustic screening. It is vital that local people have an input into any such decisions.

“Fracking is something which is potentially bad for the health of individual humans, the health of local communities and for the world’s climate. It may not even be a partial solution to our energy deficit as the gas is under private control and can be sold on anywhere in the world. I am very pleased that B&NES councillors united behind me to agree that we must maintain as much control over this process as we can in our local communities”.

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