Monday, 20 October 2014

Why our position at WSCC has to remain neutral over fracking

Last Friday at Full County Council we had a debate because 3,594 petitioners had signed a petition calling on WSCC to declare the county a Frack Free zone.

This is not the first time that such a request has been made and it is understandable for those who hold very strong concerns about fracking and who are deeply worried about it and the impact on the beautiful West Sussex countryside.

Just to reassure readers, there is currently no fracking in West Sussex, but we are the minerals planning authority so we have received applications to explore for shale gas which we must determine.

It was a good debate, however the position that WSCC has taken remains neutral - which I know will be a disappointment to the petitioners.

It would be very unwise to declare West Sussex a Frack Free zone.

The reason for this is that, as the Planning Authority we determine applications for mineral extraction sites. We want to be able to take those decisions fairly on their merits.

The neutrality of our position is absolutely crucial in determining any application at a local level. Some may say we are ducking the issue but I would say no – and the reason is simple. If we made a statement and adopted a blanket position that we did not support any fracking in West Sussex, and applications were refused, there could be a challenge on the grounds of pre-determination (that means having a fixed position before you need to take the decision).

It would mean that our decisions could and probably would be judicially reviewed, or overturned by a planning inspectorate. Worst case scenario would be that the Government could actually take over any applications and determine them itself – with little or no local accountability. I think that would be really unfortunate and the worst case scenario for the county.

Each member of Planning Committee has a duty to consider plans as per the national guidelines. There are strict guidelines around planning and people should take comfort that we take these guidelines really seriously. Every application is assessed on its own merits -  that explains why we approved the Balcombe application for exploration but refused the Wisborough Green/Kirdford one.

Both of these decisions are being challenged but this surely shows the integrity of the committee. It is also an example of the democratic process in action and local accountability. If all of that is hampered by us adopting a  pre-determined policy statement everything is put into jeopardy which is why we should not adopt a stance one way or the other.

In the meantime we will continue with the roadshows that we have been running to help give our residents as much information as possible about the processes involved in oil and gas exploration and extraction.

We don’t do these roadshows alone, and we are grateful to our partners who help make them happen and attend, including The Environment Agency, DECC, the Health and Safety Executive and local action groups, so we can ensure information is available to ensure our residents can make a balanced and rational argument.

The next event is on November 8 at the Assembly Rooms in Chichester and all are welcome.


Louise Goldsmith.

Leader West Sussex County Council
Chichester West Division

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