Saturday, 11 July 2015

Councils between a rock and a hard place over fracking - my Catholic Universe column

Back in February 2009 David Cameron then Leader of Her Majesties Opposition took to the pages of The Guardian newspaper, perhaps not a natural ally of his, to talk about localism.
Mr Cameron set out a clear vision for the future, a future where ordinary people got much more of a say about local issues that affect them. The now two-term Prime Minister said ‘Right now most people feel totally insignificant in the political process. Frankly, that’s because – in the current over centralised system – they are insignificant.’
Mr Cameron was right. People did feel powerless when it came to having a say about their local councils and in fairness the coalition government that took up office in 2010 went some way to address that disconnect.
The coalition legislated for local referendums to increase council tax although the rules and cost have meant that in practice such ballots have been rarer than hen’s teeth.
In his proposals for the future of local government Mr Cameron laid out his intention to give councils ‘the general power of competence’, a well thought out right for them to have the same powers to act as of any other organisation rather than constraining them to a narrow set of obligations and constraints specified in legislation. Whilst this power is undoubtedly a good thing for local authorities I’m not sure even Mr Cameron’s most ardent supporters would be able to evidence how this has given local people a greater say in the running of things.
In fact I would venture to write that most people feel they have no greater say now, six years on, then when Mr Cameron wrote his opinion piece back in 2009. With one possible exception.
The truth is that when Mr Cameron started talking about local people having a say most of us took that to mean planning decisions, and if indeed it did mean those decisions the system is desperately failing.
As a councillor who has sat on planning committees at both county and district level I know without any doubt that any planning application from a single residential dwelling upwards will lead to copious objections from neighbours. Whilst the vast majority of us would agree that new houses are needed or that provision has to be made for the traveling community no one wants to live near them.
Some might say that such behaviour is the actions of those fabled ‘not in my backyard’ NIMBY’s, I disagree. I believe it is human nature that we want to preserve the status quo. Most of us don’t like stepping out of a comfort zone and new development next door to us definitely falls into that category no matter what the proposals are.
It could well be the most deprived area of the country faced with millions of pounds in regeneration investment but I can guarantee that neighbour objections would be effusive.
The difficulty being faced is that if neighbour objections are the key to decision making no development would ever take place.
We know that our planet is running out of fossil fuels. Some estimates forecast that the worldwide supply will be fully depleted in 75 years. Only last year the Global Sustainability Institute said that the United Kingdom has just 5.2 years of oil, 4.5 years of coal and 3 years of natural gas remaining.
We know that there is an impending energy crisis and we must take steps to address it. Fortunately for us at least we also know that there are emerging technologies which will help us to do so.
It is vital for our future that investment and development takes place in the fields of renewable energies such as wind, solar or biofuels. It is also imperative that extraction of alternative natural energy sources becomes far more efficient as well as safer.
All of which takes me on to hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ as it is more commonly known.
Fracking is a process of drilling into the earth and subsequently pointing water, at high pressure, at the subterranean rocks which then leads to a release of gas stored in them. In no way am I an expert on fracking but I know it is extremely contentious.
Spending just a few minutes looking around the internet can lead you to some amazing sites including in the US, where fracking has been around for some time, kitchen taps bursting into flame. Closer to home early attempts at hydraulic fracturing were documented as being responsible for earth tremors.
People are justifiably concerned about fracking, they are also justifiably concerned about our future energy supplies. Some very tough decisions have to be made.
Last week Lancashire County Council were asked to grant approval for the drilling of four exploration wells to allow for hydraulic fracturing to take place on the Fylde coast, one of the very first schemes in the United Kingdom.
The application met with massive neighbour and public opposition and despite both legal advice and planning expert recommendations that safety concerns were manageable and permission should be given councillors roundly rejected the application.
The Sunday Times reported Greenpeace as saying the decision was ‘Waterloo for the fracking industry’. Yet there is every likelihood that Cuadrilla, the company making the application, will appeal which could end up costing local taxpayers millions of pounds and their locally determined decision being overturned.
The Catholic Church has long believed in the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that problems should be dealt with at their most immediate level to allow for effective solution.
It can be strongly argued that Mr Cameron’s policy of localism is closely aligned with subsidiarity and indeed it would be difficult to find anyone of any political party strongly arguing against such a principle.
The problem is that sometimes difficult decisions are needed.
For a councillor the easiest thing to do is to side with vocal objectors. These are the people who will vote for you if you agree with them, whilst the silent majority who do not oppose development will seldom if ever vote for you if you didn’t object.
But sometimes, perhaps often, vocal objectors are wrong – they do not see the bigger picture. They do not see that housing is needed in their area, they do not see that industrial units will bring jobs to those who need them and they do not see alternative energy sources are in short supply.
I am a great believer that wise words can often be found in the most unusual places. The comic book character of Peter Parker, alter-ego of Spiderman is told by his Uncle Ben shortly before he is murdered ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Those words in a far more mundane context could be written for local councillors and residents when it comes to planning and the issues facing their communities.
For public objections to mean anything localism should never simply be about jumping to a conclusion of ‘no’ because that is what those shouting loudest want.
Sometimes for the greater good locally unpopular development is needed the responsible thing is for local leaders and residents to say so.



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