By Jennifer Mein, Leader of Lancashire County Council
Last year a committee of county councillors from Lancashire dealt with one of the biggest planning applications ever put before any council, as they considered Cuadrilla’s applications to drill and frack for shale gas in two rural locations between Preston and Blackpool. Anyone in any doubt about the depth of feeling generated by fracking need only have seen and heard the hundreds of protesters who gathered outside county hall in Preston over the four days of that committee meeting, expressing their views as the committee listened to days of evidence from both sides.
Or they could have looked in our mail room and seen the tens of thousands of responses to our consultation – the majority opposed to fracking in Lancashire.
It is clearly a very emotive subject, and I’m not going to rehearse the arguments for and against. Nor am I going to address the broader concerns about finding a new way to take fossil fuels from under the Earth to satisfy our need for energy.
What I do know is that those councillors called upon to make the decision, locally elected representatives of the people of Lancashire, took their responsibilities in considering these applications very seriously and exercised their duty to the best of their abilities. And, crucially, that is what local democracy should be about: local people making decisions about the big issues that affect them.
One of the key themes promoted by central government in recent years has been localism, promoting the advantages of devolving power to communities up and down the country.
Here in Lancashire we have embraced that theme, working hard to support the local enterprise partnership in acting as a catalyst for economic growth and, despite a hugely complex local government landscape, making strides towards establishing a combined authority that will see councils working together with the promise of more control over issues that affect the county as a whole, such as skills, transport and the economy.
It is right and proper that this country’s planning regime enables applicants to appeal against decisions that go against them. And as part of that process, the secretary of state has long had the power to recover the final decision.
However, it is easy to understand the frustration felt by those who opposed the applications, and now find their local representatives overruled by the secretary of state – a member of a government that has made very clear its determination to see shale gas exploited on a large scale.
Throughout this process, Lancashire county council has sought to consider these applications on their merits, according to planning guidance and law. Moreover, county councillors have more than once united to acknowledge that – wherever each councillor stands on the safety of fracking or the use of fossil fuels – many of our residents have genuine concerns.
This is what local democracy should be about – local people making decisions about the big issues that affect them
That is why the council has twice formally called on the government to establish industry-specific regulation. It is why the council asked the government to lift the covers off a heavily redacted report about the potential impact of shale-gas exploration on rural economies. And it is why the council asked the government not to take planning decisions out of local hands.
Residents and businesses in Lancashire mobilised themselves on this issue; their councillors listened carefully to what they and the applicant had to say. The subsequent overturning of three of those councillors’ decisions not only underlines the theory that localism applies only when it suits the centre. It highlights the chasm that exists between people seeking answers and a government that is either unwilling or unable to provide them