Police surround a crane going into an exploratory oil drilling site in West Sussex, which has become a focal point for anti-fracking protest

'Hypocrisy' in fracking and renewables planning rules

The Government has been accused of "almost comical" hypocrisy over differing planning rules for renewables and fracking.

New planning guidance on renewable energy projects such as onshore wind and solar farms published yesterday requires local authorities to listen to the views of affected communities as well as assess impacts on the landscape and heritage sites.

But while environmental campaigners said it was right that the views of local people should be taken into account, it was "outrageous" the same rules did not apply for projects involving fracking – the extraction of shale gas by fracturing rock with high pressure liquid.

Recently published planning guidance on onshore oil and gas, including shale, told local authorities there was "a pressing need" for exploratory drilling to see if economically viable full scale production was possible and that planners should give "great weight" to the benefits of extraction.

The guidance published today for renewables said that "all communities have a responsibility to help increase the use and supply of green energy, but this does not mean that the need for renewable energy automatically overrides environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities".

Ruth Davis, political director at Greenpeace UK, said: "The level of hypocrisy revealed by these two documents is almost comical. If the Government applied the same level of caution to fracking as they do to renewable energy developments, then they'd be lucky to drill a single well.”

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said meeting renewable energy needs should not be used to justify inappropriate development and that the views of locals “must be listened to” when making planning decisions.

He also said it was important councils drew up local plans, which the guidance says could maximise renewable and low-carbon energy development though the document makes clear there is no "quota" for the green energy a local plan has to deliver.

The Government has also set out a compulsory requirement for pre-application consultation with local people for more significant wind farms, and a five-fold increase in the amount developers will pay communities that host turbines.

Friends of the Earth's Planning Campaigner Naomi Luhde-Thompson said: "Eric Pickles rightly says the views of local people must be listened to when making planning decisions; it's outrageous this doesn't apply when it comes to fracking.”

The Department of Energy and Climate Change said the shale industry had committed to engaging with communities before applying for planning permission to frack and shale developers have also pledged to provide financial benefits for host communities.

A spokeswoman said: "Government encourages pre-application consultation for all kinds of energy developments including wind and oil and gas.

"The UK shale industry published a Community Engagement Charter in June. Within this, they committed to engaging with communities in advance of applying for planning permission to frack for shale gas. There is no need for Government to impose a new requirement on industry to do this."

The Solar Trade Association (STA) said much of the guidance on large-scale solar arrays released yesterday was in line with industry commitments, such as using previously developed land or taking steps to boost wildlife at solar farm sites.

But STA chief executive Paul Barwell said: "The negative rhetoric of today's ministerial statements ignores the benefits of renewables, and presents these measures as simply a means of restricting their growth.

"Only ten days earlier the same department presented guidance for oil and gas exploration as measures to 'help support the shale gas industry'.

Opposition to fracking has prompted on-going protests at an exploratory oil drilling site in Balcombe in West Sussex run by energy company Caudrilla, one of Britain’s fracking pioneers, with protestors turning out for a sixth day today despite heavy rain.

The firm said it only plans to conduct exploratory drilling for oil in a temporary operation which will not include fracking, but campaigners say they fear any oil exploration could lead on to fracking.

Campaigner Carmen Dolz, from Sussex Extreme Energy Resistance, said: "This is raising awareness about how extremely dangerous fracking is. People should be concerned. The fact is it could pollute the area by contaminating the water supplies. I think there is enough evidence of that."

A former energy secretary also raised eyebrows in the House of Lords yesterday by suggesting fracking should be carried out in the “desolate” areas of the North East.

Lord Howell of Guildford, who served as energy secretary between 1979 and 1981 under Margaret Thatcher, drew gasps of astonishment from peers for suggesting fracking could take place in the North East without any impact on the surrounding environment.

"I mean there obviously are, in beautiful natural areas, worries," said the southern-based peer during Lords Questions.

"But there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part of the North East where there's plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody's residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment."

Speaking outside the House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Beecham, who is also a Newcastle councillor, said: "Neville Chamberlain spoke of pre-war Czechoslovakia as 'a far away country of which we know nothing'.

"Lord Howell clearly has a similar view on the North East and his comments once again highlight the Tories' problem with the North. Perhaps he's forecasting the future the North East faces as a result of Government policy; a 'largely uninhabited and desolate' place where there'll be few people to object."

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