On May 23rd 2016, an all-male, Conservative-majority planning committee of North Yorkshire county councillors voted seven-to-four to approve Third Energy’s exploratory fracking explorations at Kirkby Misperton in North Yorkshire. The highly contentious application saw large-scale objections and protests outside the council offices, yet drew no sign of any support for the fracking industry.
In fact, the overwhelming population in Ryedale – a picturesque and rural heartland of Yorkshire – were against the council accepting Third Energy’s application for shale exploration at the existing conventional KM8 well at the Kirkby Misperton site. Ryedale appears to have been sacrificed by Westminster, to be the first fracking trial area since Cuadrilla’s 2011 self-caused earth tremors on the Fylde in Lancashire.
In addition to the thousands of letters of objection, the application was also opposed by Ryedale District Council, every Ryedale Town Council, 15 Parish Councils, Flamingo Land, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Castle Howard Estate. There were only 32 letters of support. Were the council’s puppet strings pulled from high above to elicit the result the government no doubt needed?
Out of 4,375 responses to the application, 99.2% (4,339) said no to fracking. A derisory 0.8% – just 36 responses, offered it their support and NONE of those came from Kirkby Misperton. Therefore, in terms of social licence, Third Energy clearly have none.
The focus on fracking however, is on the north of England as the test area. The ‘technical’ term the government project is the Northern Powerhouse although this could more easily be interpreted as the Northern Poorhouse, with great bands of the north of England being handed over to fracking companies and their license areas with no concern for the environment or residents in and around the sites: cash over communities. The liability for clean-up from any fracking operations will also likely fall upon the British tax payer, not the shareholders. The fracking companies (who have also received colossal gifts in Treasury tax breaks), are not required to pay a bond against spills or pollution.
From the outset of the North Yorkshire County Council planning meeting, having a determination committee with a Conservative Party majority should be considered prejudiced. The Conservative government have already laid out their misguided notion to make shale gas a national component of energy production. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, gave a statement via the DECC blog which highlights this:
“This Government is clear that we have a national need to explore shale gas.”
But what about the democracy of localism? The much-championed passion of Greg Clark, and earlier on, David Cameron, seems now to be obsolete. But somebody didn’t let poor Andrea Leadsom know. She spoke about localism and fracking applications as if she didn’t get that memo:
“I absolutely think that that is one of the factors that any local authority planning committee would take into account and that’s precisely the point about having the local authority involvement in it and the community say because, of course, local people know best what’s suitable for their area.”
(Obviously, we need to insert a Ryedale-not-included clause here).
Almost fully funded at 97% by Barclays Bank, Third Energy have a shaky history.
“Third Energy’s objective is to have minimum impact on the community, whether from environmental, health or safety impacts from our operations. We are very proud to have operated for over 20-years without any significant incidents.”
With a list of environmental breaches and failures, it appears that Third Energy actually has a demonstrably poor record of health and safety. Only last year, a substantial gas leak (paywall) of 74,000 cubic meters of gas seeped from the four-well Malton site in Yorkshire. Third Energy breached their permit and failed to report this to the Environment Agency, which was only discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests. Third Energy have attempted to deflect publicity from this issue by stating that the member of the public who was the complainant “misrepresented information”.
The offshore-banking company also failed their initial application of validation to North Yorkshire County Council, with a whole list of administrative errors – so much so, it necessitated a resubmission of the entire application. This does not inspire confidence in Third Energy’s technical ability for detail and safety on the ground if they are unable to even prepare their paperwork correctly.
The Conservative ideology on shale gas is well-worn party line, so how could a majority-Tory planning committee be employed to provide an objective stance on a major fracking application? We know from experience in Lancashire that pressures were applied right from Tory HQ down to the council officers, to vote in favour of Cuadrilla’s exploratory shale gas applications. Fortunately, Lancashire’s councillors stood up for their constituents and said no. They sought outside legal advice that gave them strength of opinion to the contrary of the Lancashire County Council Planning Officer, Stuart Perigo, whose attempts to railroad the councillors into passing the Roseacre and Preston New Road exploratory applications were nauseatingly blatant.
As the council planning meeting unfolded, it became glaringly obvious that some of the councillors on the development committee had less than a basic understanding of what was in front of them. Councillor Andrew Lee, Conservative member for Cawood and Saxton on several occasions, referred to fracking flowback fluid as “blowback” fluid.
The first time, it may be believable that one might have misheard him, but after the third time, it was fairly evident he really did believe the toxic flowback was called “blowback”. A prudent person might wonder if Cll Lee had even familiarised himself with Third Energy’s application and moreover, the fracking process in general.
Another pertinent fact was that none of the councillors on the planning committee were representing Ryedale: all members were located from outside the area.
However, not all councillors were able to be convinced by the sketchy summary and indirect-from-above diktat of the Planning Officer, Vicky Perkins. Councillor Blackie, an Independent member for Hawes and High Abbotside, stated on summing up his opinions:
“This is a classic case of an application, that has branded all over it, cumulative uncertainty.”
He also raised another critical point, which had apparently bypassed the Planning Officer, Vicky Perkins.
“You don’t mention the continued prosperity of the local community and it’s a real key point I would have thought, amongst the objectors and I just wondered why it’s not mentioned?”
She replied, after a bit of a shuffle through her papers and said: “It should be in there and it’s an oversight on my part…I apologise.”
What could be more fundamental to an application that could damage the life quality of the very community that would be subjected to an industrial development on its doorstep?
Ms Perkins seemed flustered throughout the meeting and seemed to struggle with getting out her words in an effective manner, yet was keen enough to dissuade members from considering anything other than the government’s clichéd “robust regulations” that would protect everything and everyone. She advised the committee not to consider fracking experiences in other parts of the world and to rely on the other regulatory bodies to take care of the ‘important stuff’.
Sue Gough, an artist and Yorkshire Nana from Frack Free Ryedale said:
“From a purely personal point of view, I am involved with the campaign to prevent fracking for the sake of my two baby grandsons; I worry about the legacy we will leave for future generations to deal with, the damage to health and the environment. As a member of Frack Free Ryedale, I would like to strongly point out that Third Energy has no social license to frack; over 92% of local people wrote objections to the planning application. Protest always follows on from social injustice; everything Frack Free Ryedale does is lawful.”
The decision to allow fracking in Ryedale seems to be made from a pressurised and purely political position. After the apparent shockwaves that reverberated through the corridors of Whitehall following Lancashire County Council’s refusal of both of Cuadrilla’s fracking applications, one might assume any further planning committee issues will be nicely sewn-up to avoid a repeat of, heaven forbid, a democratic decision. The short discussion leading up to the North Yorkshire County Council planning committee vote illustrated what a basic grasp of knowledge the majority of councillors had with regards to the application. This was nothing short of a disservice to the residents of Kirkby Misperton and a travesty to local, now fracktured democracy in Ryedale.
Democracy, it seems, is not a material consideration for future decisions surrounding fracking applications, and planning committee members are being well-conditioned to accept that their hands are tied if they want to avoid further altercations and cash liabilities with big corporations and the government.
For the Conservative government, with a teetering and precarious majority, by favouring big business over communities and the environment, should not readily expect citizens to acquiesce and stand aside: a surge in protest and direct actions should be anticipated on a large scale.