A key central government policy of recent years has been the devolution of power to a local level, predicated on a belief that people who know most about their area are best placed to make decisions which affect the lives of those who live there.
But the secretary of state’s decision to overturn Lancashire County Council’s refusal of an application to drill and frack for shale gas provides a lesson in how localism fares when it collides with one of the government’s strategic priorities.
Here in Lancashire we’ve enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to take more decisions locally, and are already beginning to see the benefit of closer working between local government, communities,and businesses when targeting investment in skills, transport and growth.
Many of these investments have involved improvements to roads and other infrastructure, often with the need to first gain permission through the planning regime. While major developments often split opinion, one of the strengths of planning in the UK is that applicants can appeal against decisions that go against them. And as part of that process, the secretary of state has long had the power to recover the final decision.
However, it is easy to understand the frustration and anger felt by those in our community who opposed the applications and now find their local representatives over-ruled by the secretary of state – a member of
a government that has made very clear its determination to see shale gas exploited on a large scale.
Fracking is clearly a very emotive subject, the evidence for which became most clear to me upon seeing the tens of thousands of responses which arrived in our mailroom over the course of the planning consultation. The majority expressed their concerns that this industry might start to operate in the county, but many identified potential benefits and stated their support.
Our planning committee certainly felt the weight of responsibility placed on them in taking what would be held as a landmark decision, and were reminded of the depth of feeling generated by the subject by the good-natured but noisy demonstrations attended by hundreds outside County Hall during deliberations.
Throughout this process, those local councillors sought to consider the applications on their merits according to planning law. They listened carefully to views on all sides of the debate and made their decisions on that basis.
Our individual county councillors hold different and sometimes opposing views, reflecting the wide range of public opinion on the subject, but we have been united as a council in twice calling on the government to support industry-specific regulation to address local people’s concerns.
We have asked the government to lift the covers off a heavily redacted report about the potential impact of shale gas exploration on rural economies. And we have asked the government not to take planning decisions out of local hands.
We have done all this because this is what local government does, across the country, day in and day out. We understand our communities and are best placed to represent them, and make decisions that affect them.
Regardless of how the secretary of state’s decision plays out – and there will be more legal twists and turns yet – the fact remains that residents and businesses in Lancashire made their views known and their councillors made their decisions based on all of the evidence put to them.
That the government then overturned three of those decisions gives weight to a suspicion that localism only applies until the centre disagrees, and highlights the gulf between people seeking reassurance and answers and a government that will not supply them.