Nick warns against permitted development rights for shale gas exploration

Nick Herbert

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.

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West)

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.

Nick Herbert

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.

Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale)

The 2017 Conservative party manifesto that Conservative Members stood on spoke about a revolution in shale gas and liberalising the planning regime.

Nick Herbert

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 can. 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.

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The Minister for Housing (Kit Malthouse)

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 overwhelming 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—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.

Mr Betts

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?

Kit Malthouse

I will come to those exact issues, if the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee will give me a moment.

On the potential changes to permitted development rights, in summer 2018, we consulted on proposals about 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 only cover 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.

Kevin Hollinrake

Would permitted development rights allow a producer to construct a well pad pretty much wherever they wanted to put it?

Kit Malthouse

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.

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