Fracking debate halted over concerns about council's impartiality

A County Hall debate on fracking was abandoned amidst an acrimonious row over whether it risked compromising councillors who may have to decide on any future planning applications from the shale gas sector.

Lancashire County Council had been set to discuss a motion put forward by the authority’s lone Green Party representative, Gina Dowding, welcoming the government’s rejection of industry calls to relax seismic activity limits.

County Cllr Gina Dowding had called the fracking debate

County Cllr Gina Dowding had called the fracking debate

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Energy firm Cuadrilla last year called for the raising of the level at which such activity triggers an automatic suspension of the fracking process.

But before the debate got under way, the authority’s senior legal adviser warned that members of the council’s development control committee – which rules on major planning applications like fracking – could be compromised by “the language used in the notice of motion, [which] strongly suggests a particular view”.

Laura Sales suggested that members of the committee could, in future, be considered to have a pre-determined opinion on fracking – whichever way they voted on the issue which had been put before them in the chamber.

“All members will be aware of the degree of scrutiny to which such applications are subject,” Ms Sales, the county council’s monitoring officer, said.

Newly elected deputy chair County Cllr Susie Charles had to decide whether the debate should continue

Newly elected deputy chair County Cllr Susie Charles had to decide whether the debate should continue

But in a further twist, councillors were told that the concerns related not just to current, but “potential” development control committee members – in other words, any of Lancashire’s 84 county councillors.

Faced with the prospect of nobody being able to vote on her motion, County Coun Dowding offered to delete a section which called on the authority “not to bow to pressure from the fracking industry at any stage in the future”.

With that wording erased, she asked deputy chair of the council, Susie Charles – who was in charge of the meeting – whether the motion was now “acceptable”.

“Yes,” County Coun Charles replied.

Council leader Geoff Driver said the debate should be stopped

Council leader Geoff Driver said the debate should be stopped

However, council leader Geoff Driver intervened moments later to call for the debate to adjourned, citing a “procedural order”. He claimed that the issue had “not been sufficiently discussed and, in view of the advice given by the monitoring officer, cannot be reasonably discussed on this occasion”.

As opposition parties clamoured to discuss the Conservative leader’s call, it was put to a vote, which was carried – and the debate was adjourned.

The move prompted a walkout by the Liberal Democrat group, with leader David Whipp decrying what he described as “another denial of democracy”.

But the deputy chair explained to County Coun Dowding and a fractious chamber: “I said that you could present [the motion], but any member of the council can put forward a procedural order – and that was totally in order, I was advised,” County Coun Charles added.

Speaking after the meeting, County Coun Dowding accused the Conservative group of “playing reckless games with democracy”.

“I was advised as I came into the council chamber that I would have to remove that sentence [from the motion] for it to be acceptable – I did so and still the Conservative administration butted in to prevent it from being debated.

“Local people want to know this council supports them and that there are politicians at a local level who are going to stand up to the government and to the industry, who are trying all the time to lobby to make their lives easier – but at a risk to public health in this area,” she added.

But County Coun Driver said the legal advice “couldn’t have been clearer”.

“It’s absolutely vital that we are always seen to be impartial on matters concerning fracking, because…people have really strong views both ways and we cannot be seen to have pre-determined it beforehand.

“The whole of the preamble to the motion was just one-sided and professional officers in this building would argue very strongly that some of those points were actually factually inaccurate.

“It is potentially very dangerous if the council itself, as the ultimate body, debates fracking and passes some resolution [on it],” he warned.

WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN DEBATED?

The motion put before the county council called on the government to “continue to prioritise public health and safety” and maintain the so-called “traffic light system” – which regulates fracking activity – at current levels.

Under the rules, adopted in 2012, fracking must be suspended for 18 hours if seismic activity above a magnitude of 0.5 is detected.

Earlier this year, the government said they had no intention of changing that limit. They were responding to a call from the boss of energy firm Cuadrilla – which is fracking on Preston New Road in Fylde – to relax the restriction.

County Coun Gina Dowding said her motion was “about this council being able to support its local communities over the seismic threshold for fracking in this area.

“We know the industry is desperate to change [it], because they can’t operate within the safety limits they agreed to”.

Following the County Hall meeting where the debate was adjourned, Rowland Wright, external affairs director at Cuadrilla, said that the motion “actively campaigned against the creation of jobs, revenue and benefits to local communities”.

He added: “We have been transparent about our request to Government to review the traffic light system. The upper limit of 0.5 on the Richter scale was set with no scientific basis and represents a miniscule level of ground vibration, similar to standing by a busy road.

“The British Geological Survey normally only detects seismicity above a 2.0 and is only able to record the tiny movements around our shale gas exploration site in Preston New Road because a dense network of temporary sensors.

“Meanwhile, across Lancashire, quarrying and construction projects are legally creating ground vibrations in excess of this every day and it’s a complete non-issue for communities and politicians alike.”