Environmental campaigners have accused the government of trying to bribe the public to accept fracking, after Theresa May unveiled plans to give households cash payments worth thousands of pounds if shale drilling occurs in their areas.
The prime minister personally intervened with proposals for households to get direct cash handouts in areas where fracking takes place, changing plans that would have given money to local communities.
Announcing the plans on Sunday, No 10 said the cash model would be a “blueprint” for letting people benefit directly from other infrastructure developments as well.
It raised the prospect that residents could also get cash handouts if there were housing or office developments in their areas, funded through the community infrastructure levy that is currently under review.
The plans to reward people for accepting fracking in their areas provoked immediate criticism from Labour, the Green party and environmental charities.
Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, particularly criticised the handouts for fracking developments when there was no such “bribe” for people to accept clean-energy wind farms.
“Does Theresa May really hold the British public in such high esteem that she thinks they can be bribed into fracking and a fossil fuel future?” he said. “Appealing to people’s higher nature, Theresa May gives a £10,000-plus bribe if you live near a frack site. If you live near a wind farm, nothing … The asymmetry is amazing. Wind farms are subject to a localism veto but for shale gas, [the] government can override.”
Public support for fracking hit a new low of 19% in April according to the government’s long-running public attitudes tracker – while the numbers against the energy source had risen to 31%. Support for renewable power in the survey stood at 81%, with only 4% opposing it.
Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK chief scientist, said: “The government has tried to sweeten the fracking pill with cash payments before, and it didn’t work. Over the last two years, public opposition has soared and support for shale has tanked. People’s concerns about climate change and their local environment cannot be silenced with a wad of cash.
“You can’t put a price on the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the beauty of our countryside. If Theresa May wants to show the UK is open for business, she should reverse the policies that have harmed our vibrant clean-energy sector and back the technologies that can supply cheap, homegrown energy for decades to come.”
The Green party also reacted angrily to the proposal. Molly Scott Cato, a Green party MEP, said: “Theresa May is … offering individual payments, little more than bribes, to households in areas affected by fracking. This is bound to set household against household and can only exacerbate community tensions.
“Following hard on the heels of the Hinkley fiasco, this misguided policy to encourage fracking demonstrates again that the government has no strategic energy policy. It is also another worrying indication of the failure of commitment to tackle climate change, first demonstrated by May in her abolition of DECC [the department for energy and climate change].
“The Green party is clear that our energy future must lie with the rapid investment in both energy conservation measures and new renewable capacity. This offers a clean, safe energy future and would also create many thousands of jobs.”
It is the latest direct intervention by May over energy policy in the past few weeks. She has abolished Decc by wrapping into a new business and industrial policy brief, and ordered a review of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, after it had been signed off by EDF, the French state-owned company, and its Chinese co-investors.
Plans to compensate residents for fracking were first unveiled under the former chancellor George Osborne last year, who suggested there could be a £1bn shale wealth fund from up to 10% of the tax proceeds of shale drilling to benefit host communities.
The new fund could deliver as much as £10m to each community where wells are sited. Downing Street declined to estimate how much payouts could be worth, but it is thought that individual households could receive between £5,000 and £20,000.
Speaking ahead of a consultation on the fund, May said she wanted to make sure that individuals benefit personally from economic decisions. “The government I lead will be always be driven by the interests of the many – ordinary families for whom life is harder than many people in politics realise,” the prime minister said.
“As I said on my first night as prime minister: when we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful but of you. This announcement is an example of putting those principles into action. It’s about making sure people personally benefit from economic decisions that are taken – not just councils – and putting them back in control over their lives.
“We’ll be looking at applying this approach to other government programmes in the future too, as we press on with the work of building a country that works for everyone.”
A British Geological Survey study of shale gas across the north of England estimated total reserves of 1,300tn cubic feet – the equivalent of more than 500 years of UK gas consumption at current levels.
However, it is still unclear how much of this will be economical to extract and whether it would prove too disruptive to many heavily populated areas.