As double standards go, it’s up there with a squadron of 1,700 private jets carrying the global elite into Davos to discuss global warming and lecture the poorest people of developing world on the evils of burning cow dung. Indeed, the whiff of cow dung in the air is unmistakeable as I recall back in May the papers quoting a ‘government insider’ extolling Amber Rudd’s credentials as “really green and no-nonsense”, and the environmental lobby praising her appointment as a minister who found climate science “compelling”.

Perhaps DECC is building up a store of hot air and cow dung that it can use to cover the stench from exploratory shale gas boreholes and leaking methane.
The changes to planning for the shale gas industry announced by DECC and DCLG on Thursdaycover call-in of applications, prioritising appeals for refused schemes and changes to permitted developments rights for drilling for seismic investigations, monitoring and locating mine workings.

And at a time when planning departments have experienced the largest cuts of any local government service area since 2010 under the government’s austerity programme, the Treasury has found £1.2 million for a shale support programme, to be made available to local planning authorities to help them make “timely decisions” on the industry’s planning applications , whilst issuing veiled threats to LPAs who don’t comply. 

The joint DECC/DCLG statement advises that the government has a clear expectation that local planning authorities will make decisions on shale gas related planning applications within statutory timeframes: 16 weeks where an application is subject to Environmental Impact Assessment. I believe this requirement could have implications for meeting statutory obligations under EU and UK Regulatory frameworks.

As solar developers, you’ll know that any number of issues can hold up a solar farm application for well over a year, sometimes considerably more. Miss your window for Great Crested Newt surveys and there is no alternative but to wait until the following spring. Bats, dormice, crayfish and over-wintering birds could have you equally delayed.

If I am a shale gas developer, will my legal obligation to establish the effect on EU protected species or the preservation of heritage assets before planning permission is granted be waived? How would this be possible without leaving me and the authorities open to Judicial Review? Pre-application discussions are useful for understanding what survey work may be required, but through no fault of the developer omissions do occur, with County Ecologists (where they actually exist with the cutbacks) making a need for surveys known only once well into the 13 or 16 week determination period.

Local planning authorities and their consultees already struggle to ensure that their statutory responsibilities to protect heritage assets and qualifying species are met in respect of energy proposals. With shale gas applications being prioritised, remaining resources will be spread ever more thinly, affecting not only the energy industry but housing developers and others too. Aren’t we all entitled to “timely decisions”?

I feel a collective thrombosis is attacking our very British sense of fairness, both within the solar and wind industries and amongst the rural communities who will find they and their elected local representatives caught between a fracked rock and a hard place when determining shale gas applications. They are hard working families too, Mr Osborne.