Out-Law News 2 min. read

New measures to speed up shale planning approvals in England proposed

Local authorities in England could be prevented from determining applications to explore for onshore oil and gas if they "repeatedly fail" to issue decisions by the 16-week statutory deadline, ministers have announced.

UK energy secretary Amber Rudd and Greg Clark, the communities secretary, said that proposals would speed up "safe and suitable" shale gas exploration and development while still ensuring that "local people have a strong say over the development of shale exploration in their area".

Changes to planning guidance will take effect immediately, the ministers announced. They have also issued a consultation on further amendments to permitted development rights so that developers would be able to drill boreholes for groundwater monitoring and seismic investigation earlier in the planning process.

Energy and planning expert Jennifer Ballantyne of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that there was currently a "fundamental disconnect" between local planning authorities' decisions on shale gas planning applications and central government commitments to develop home-grown energy supplies. This had to be addressed ahead of the upcoming onshore drilling licensing round, she said.

"The licence round is a critical piece of the jigsaw for the UK shale gas industry giving operators the initial approval to move forward with exploratory drilling," she said.

"But a petroleum exploration and development licence (PEDL) is just the start. A myriad of other environmental, planning and health and safety permits are required for onshore drilling. If local planning authorities continually block legitimate applications to embark upon fracking activity, the industry will be hindered time and again and holding a licence won't remedy that," she said.

The announcement comes shortly after Lancashire County Council rejected plans put forward by energy company Cuadrilla to explore for shale gas at two sites in the local authority area. Its application to conduct drilling, hydraulic fracturing and gas flow testing at Preston New Road was rejected by the council's Development Control Committee at the end of June, against the recommendations of its planning officer, on the grounds of "noise and visual impact".

The communities secretary already has the power to 'call in' planning applications for determination. However, the new guidance states that he will "actively consider" calling in shale planning applications on a case by case basis, and may consider determining appeals rather than leave their determination to the Planning Inspectorate. The Planning Inspectorate will also be required to prioritise planning call ins and appeals involving shale applications, while shale applications will also be treated as a specific category of appeal to ensure that they do not "fall through the cracks", according to the announcement.

The new guidance also explicitly encourages local authorities to meet the existing 16-week statutory deadline in relation to shale applications, unless applicants agree to a longer period. Councils that repeatedly "underperform" against this deadline will be identified, and the communities secretary could be given the power to determine all future shale applications within the relevant councils' area.

"People's safety and the environment will remain paramount and communities will always be involved in planning applications but no one benefits from uncertainty caused by delays in planning decisions," Clark said. "By fast-tracking any appropriate applications, today's changes will tackle potential hold-ups in the system."

Existing planning rules which ensure that shale development only happens at "appropriate" sites will remain in place, while health and safety and environmental rules will not be affected, he said. The government also intends to put forward proposals later in the year for a new sovereign wealth fund, to benefit the communities hosting shale gas developments.

Planning and energy expert Jennifer Ballantyne said that while that the announcement was "good news for the shale gas industry…we must see that the detail of these new rules and understand the consequences for authorities deemed to be deliberately thwarting the advancement of shale gas across the UK".

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