Is fracking cracking the planning process?

Is fracking cracking the planning process?
Objectors in the North West were celebrating in July last year as Lancashire County Council refused planning consent for energy firm Cuadrilla to start fracking for shale gas on a site near Fylde. This was despite a recommendation for approval by the Council’s own planning officers and despite advice from the Council’s own barrister that any attempt to block the application would be unreasonable and likely to be costly. Inevitably local politicians who have the final say on the planning committee bowed to local pressure and “found grounds for refusal” based on "unacceptable noise impact" and the "adverse urbanising effect on the landscape".

Whilst there may be some noise impact during construction of the site well-head and a few modest buildings on site, it is hard to see how this would amount to any serious local impact once the site is up and running. The problem we face is that while no-one wants dirty coal-powered electricity generating stations, just as many do not want fracking or any of the other new energy sources in their back yard. It seems to be that it’s alright in North America where it has been used since the early 1950’s or in the middle of the North Sea where it has also been used for years, just don’t bring it close to us.
The main concerns about fracking appear to be the risk of contaminating ground water and the risk of it causing earthquakes. In Lancashire the proposed drilling was nowhere near ground water sources. Previous incidents in the United States had occurred where boreholes through water-bearing strata were not properly sealed in the early days and no evidence has been produced to link fracking with earthquakes or tremors. 

The process in Lancashire would have involved sinking a borehole some 3,000m deep into a seam of shale and then pumping water with sand into the rock at high pressure to open natural splits in the rock. Shale is a very hard rock and without increasing the surface area by causing cracks, the gas held in the rock cannot escape. Sand is required to be blown into the cracks to hold them open as otherwise they would close naturally after fracking under the weight of rock. The gas then gradually percolates along the cracks held open by the sand to the borehole and is pumped away for use.
I am no particular fan of fracking and certainly have no agenda to champion its cause. What frustrates me is this further example of the Town and Country Planning process being highjacked by special interest groups and the advice of professional planners employed by the Council being ignored. Cuadrilla will almost certainly appeal, probably win on appeal, and Lancashire County Council will be left with a massive bill for Cuadrilla’s costs for unreasonably turning down their application. Like it or not, national planning policy is in favour of this sort of development. What we need to do is review these national policies and then, once settled, allow them to be implemented so that there is clarity and certainty in the planning process.

Mike Taylor BSc FRICS FAAV FNAEA is senior partner of Barbers Rural in Market Drayton and specialises in independent expert valuations of farms and other rural property for dispute resolution.