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Get the frack off my land: reform of trespass laws explained

Controversial reform to trespass legislation will allow fracking firms to drill under your home without your permission. How big a dent is this to your land ownership rights?

Anti-fracking Protest Camp At Barton Moss
Anti-fracking Protest Camp At Barton Moss. Photo: Christopher Furlong, Getty

The government gave fracking companies the green light in the Queen’s speech this week, crucially removing the requirement for firms to gain permission from home-owners to drill under their land.

Although ministers claimed a final decision would depend on the outcome of a recently-launched public consultation, they signalled their firm intention to smooth the path for firms to exploit Britain’s shale gas reserve.

Much has been made of this permission waiver, which was first floated by the government in January, and which is likely to be included in an Infrastructure Bill during this Parliament.

The trespass exemption for fracking firms sits uncomfortably with most people’s intuitive interpretation of land ownership, but also their legal understanding of the matter too.

After all, the most common definition of land rights and a central principle of property law, states: “cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos”. 

Or, for non-Latinists, this translates roughly* as: “he who owns soil does so up to the heavens and down to the centre of the earth”.

Well, up to a point. Admittedly, the legal principle, which entered common law during the reign of Edward I, is still accepted in limited form today in modern law.

But there are many exceptions, including airspace, water, trees, plants and flowers, wild animals, and, crucially, mines and minerals.

So the implication, frequently appealed to in the current furore over fracking, that horizontal drilling under a private owner’s land is a unique exception to, or transgression against, the owner’s legal land rights is misleading.

That said, it is true that up until now, current laws of trespass have required fracking firms to gain permission from land owners to drill under their land. Drilling can extend up to 3km horizontally underground from a central well pad.

This has held true for all historical landward oil and gas exploration in the UK. Companies seeking conventional energy sources on land require a license from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which grants exclusive rights to explore for and exploit onshore oil and gas.

The license has never included any rights of access, however, nor does it waive the need for the company to gain planning permission and any other consent needed under current legislation.

Further complications arise if a company wants to drill through a coal seam in search of gas – they need the permission of the Coal Authority, which has been the rights holder of all British coal since the valuable sedimentary rock was nationalised in 1994.

Which brings us to the other question of ownership of minerals in the UK. Firstly, to define minerals. According to the Town and Country Planning legislation, minerals are “all substances in or under land of a kind ordinarily worked for removal by underground or surface working, except that it does not include peat cut for purposes other than for sale.”

Essentially, a home- or land-owner holds the rights (which should be registered in the Land Registry along with details of surface land rights) to all the minerals in their land, with the important exceptions of gold, silver, coal, oil and gas.

Land-owners would still require planning permission, however, from a mineral planning authority to extract any of these minerals that they technically own from their land.

As for the ownership of oil and gas, the Petroleum (Production) Act 1934 granted all onshore rights to the Crown. A different act presides over rights in the UK Continental Shelf outside UK territorial waters, but again these are vested in the Crown.

So, the fact that the state owns any shale gas that might under your land is not out of keeping with rights to conventional fuels.  And while the proposed reform of trespass laws charts new territory for land-owners' legal rights, there are many other exemptions to these rights as they stand.

The nub of it is that fracking firms can already drill under your land without your permission. The new legislation will only make the process easier.

As Energy Minister Michael Fallon pointed out this week: “At the moment, a developer can apply to the courts for permission to drill a horizontal pipe a mile down underneath your house and needs to go to the Secretary of State to get that permission. We've got a solution that we think simplifies that."

 

 

* Four years reading for a classics degree well spent then