UK Shale Gas

3.42 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate.

I first want to dismiss the poor arguments produced this afternoon and previously on the merits of shale gas extraction: we should not have the slightest interest in where executives of oil and gas companies went to school; the possibility of a company making a profit in a market economy is not a serious argument or a reason to dismiss its proposals; and nor is it of any interest or significance that a businessman might at some point have met a Minister to discuss shale gas-heaven forfend! In the end, the Government have to make a judgment on the basis of the national interest, and that judgment must be approved by the House of Commons. We therefore have to consider the arguments sensibly and seriously, not merely chucking mud or rocks in the belief that that will somehow strengthen the argument. In actual fact, it will not; it will undermine it.

Secondly, I want to talk about my interests, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) did. I have a constituency interest, because the Sussex Weald basin, which covers a large part of my constituency, has been identified as an area that might contain significant reserves of exploitable shale gas. At the moment, we do not know the extent of any possible drilling or how exploitable any reserves might be. Test drilling is about to begin, subject to planning permissions being obtained.

I want to engage in the argument about what the national interest is. It cannot solely consist of the contention that shale gas might lead to cheaper energy and economic benefit, powerful though that argument might be-in any case, we have heard that it is debatable. There are of course other arguments about whether the form of energy generated is sustainable or the kind of clean energy that we should be investing in for the long term. For now, I set aside that important economic argument.

There are other national interests, one of which is our landscape. To pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), some of the areas in which the drilling would have to take place in Sussex are in the national park. National parks are areas with the highest landscape designation, and they are designated as such precisely because the landscape is treated like no other, so there should be a strong presumption against any kind of economic activity that may damage them. That does not mean that no activity can ever take place in a national park, or even that that should be the case, but it does mean that we have to make judgments carefully, recognising the national interest in protecting such areas, not only the local interest or vested local interest. That has to be considered. We must be able to balance the national interest properly.

What has struck me about the debate this afternoon is that we do not yet really know what the effect in each of our constituencies will be. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) suggested that there might be about 164 wells per constituency. I do not know whether that figure is right or wrong, but I do know that my constituents are completely bemused about the possible impact on their areas and the landscape in an entirely rural setting, which is tranquil and quiet and where the countryside is especially valued. Further concerns involve the supply of water in a stressed area and the impact on groundwater. It must be right that should any activity take place, it is conducted according to the highest environmental standards.

The kernel of my argument, however, is the importance of a system that properly balances the arguments both nationally, so that we take a careful view of the national interest and where we should do anything, and locally, so that we preserve the integrity of the local planning system. We must be able to judge locally where activity might be particularly damaging to the local area because of a high landscape designation or the impact on the local environment. The process should be gone through transparently, so that communities have a sense that their concerns are being properly weighed and balanced.

Caroline Lucas: I very much agree about the planning system. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore share my disappointment that the guidelines we were promised from the Department for Communities and Local Government before the recess have not been forthcoming? Does he also share my disappointment that, when they finally arrive in the weeks or months to come, they will not be open to consultation, but simply there as a given?

Nick Herbert: My interest is in what the guidelines say; I will not criticise the Government for not bringing the guidelines forward. I am making a plea for the guidelines to ensure that we maintain the integrity of the local planning process.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) about the need for an evidence-led debate and a good supply of information. That is exactly what my constituents want. They are unclear about the impact of any proposals. We do not know whether the shale gas is exploitable, or what the impact of drilling would be-the footprint of the drills might be minimised, or there might not be as many as suggested, because the gas is not exploitable-and that unknown is fomenting a great deal of fear. The provision of sensible information and having a sensible debate are therefore incredibly important.

Barbara Keeley: The right hon. Gentleman is making some good points about uncertainty, which I can echo from my constituency. Is he slightly disturbed or alarmed, as I am, to hear that the Environment Agency aims to cut its process down to six weeks by September and to between one and two weeks by early next year, and to base that process on rules? I am concerned that each site should be considered on its own merits. We should not have a rulebook approach or deal with things using a method based on "Let's get this out in one to two weeks."

Nick Herbert: I am not sure that I accept the hon. Lady's point. Timely provision of a view by the Environment Agency should be welcomed by constituents. Of course, we do not want to allow a situation in which decisions are in effect being bulldozed through-I accept that-and the independence of the Environment Agency and its ability to weigh such issues properly are important. However, timely provision of information without any obfuscation or delay by the Environment Agency, as can happen in a lot of areas where development proposals are concerned, would be welcome.

I am not here to say that shale gas development must be a bad thing and that we should not pursue the drive to exploit shale. I seek a careful debate in which we ensure a balance of interests and a recognition that the national interest does not consist only in economic advantage, however powerful that argument might be. It also consists in ensuring that we can protect national assets, including the countryside and our landscape. We must ensure that we balance that interest in our national consideration as we design the guidelines and so on, and that locally elected councillors can do so and take specific local concerns into account. We should not drive towards this potential new energy source regardless; we should attempt to engage with people and ensure democratic support for what is proposed.