Wednesday, 24 June 2015
Fracking: Why Can't We Just Say No?
Reject them and they face financial ruin.
No, not the dilemma facing Syriza's Alexis Tsipras in Greece, but that facing Lancashire County Council as they consider the application by Cuadrilla Resources for the first application to extract shale gas in the UK.
The Council has seen a mountain petitions, a deluge of letter and emails to councillors and a small army of protesters outside (including me) urging them to reject fracking. Those in favour of shale gas meanwhile have had to resort to 'astroturfing'; persuading a handful of students who want jobs in the industry to pose outside when it was quiet.
So why is it so hard to Just Say No?
The answer is because the system is rigged.
Partly we have my all-time favourite road protester to thank, Mr John Tyme.
Tyme, a polytechnic lecturer complete with jacket with elbow patches, who successfully opposed a number of road schemes in the 1970s. Tyme's modus operadi was to get into the Planning Meeting and hit the committee with a barrage of evidence that the car culture sucked.
The problem is he was so successful they changed the law to stop him. Today it is impossible for a planning inquiry to challenge government policy. If they say we need more roads we need more road, the only question for the planners to answer is where.
Mainly though we have the legacy of 'Mr Localism' himself to thank. Eric Pickles' effect on local government was toxic. He gave more power to allow them to oppose things he didn't like, such as wind turbines, and when they opposed things he did like he overruled them.
Councils also had to, by law, come up with a Core Strategy. This is usually a document of Byzantine complexity that only those with no life and infinite patience have the time or willpower to read, let alone comment on. The strategy has to by definition, be "consistent with national policy".
As I said, the game is rigged.
The sticking point in Lancashire appears to be CS5, the strategy for growth. Along with some warm words on Climate Change, this requires the council to "foster growth and investment". Cuadrilla offer investment, so job done, legally.
Lancashire County Council have the option of rejecting one sight in favour of another, but if they say no to all of them they risk an expensive legal action. A whip round outside County Hall today raised £250 for that, but when Tesco threatened to appeal against Machynlleth's rejection of their planned store a couple of years ago it was estimated it would cost each Council Tax payer in the town that much.
So money controls the planning process, just as it does Central Government and the major political parties.
Lancashire County Council may still be brave enough to reject Cuadrilla's plans. If they don't the protests that will take place will be massive, but the cost of policing them will fall on the Council Tax payers of Lancashire. Having rejected fracking, the voters of Lancashire will in effect be paying to police themselves as they try to stop something by direct action they couldn't stop through democracy.
Welcome to the world of the Twenty-first Century, where we are all Greece.