Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Selling planning consents

Some of what Cameron said this week on fracking is surely indisputable.  It would undoubtedly create jobs, it would undoubtedly lead to major capital investment, and it would undoubtedly increase UK energy security.

His claim about lower energy bills is rather less certain, and has already been disputed by some of those involved in the industry. I don't doubt his sincerity in claiming that steps will be taken to try and ensure minimal direct environmental damage - although the extent to which any of us can be certain that there will not be damage is another question entirely.  He may turn out to be right, but I don’t currently share his apparent supreme confidence.
However, all of that is about the pros and cons at a practical and economic level; the point he did not make was that an all-out commitment to fracking commits us, effectively, to another century of dependence on fossil fuels.  Gas may be the cleanest (although I prefer the term “least dirty”) of the fossil fuels, but it is still a fossil fuel, and it still produces greenhouse gases.
We should also be concerned about the financial deal suggested this week, in which councils in England will get to keep the whole of the business rates from any fracking site (the Welsh Government has yet to decide whether to follow suit).  I can’t argue against the principle that local communities should gain from any such developments if they do go ahead – after all, I have argued in the past that the same should be true for windfarms.  But tying those benefits into the planning process is another matter entirely.
Some have already called it a “bribe”, and giving local authorities a direct financial incentive to grant planning consent certainly seems to be flying in the face of the (allegedly) quasi-judicial planning process.
For decades, local councillors have been told that they must set aside any personal views about developments, avoid taking any view prior to hearing the report of the planning officers, and then judge planning applications purely on their merits as compared with agreed planning policies, almost as though they were in a court of law.  So – is it actually legal to offer local authorities a direct financial incentive to grant planning consent for a development which they would otherwise refuse?  I’m sure that it would not be if I tried it.

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