Sorry but the Blanket Ban on Fracking in SSSIs was Irrational and Had to Go

I don’t like fracking.  I don’t like the lobbying tactics of fracking companies and the way they distort the evidence on climate change.  I particularly dislike Osborne’s slathering support for it.  Yet here I am strongly arguing that the blanket ban on fracking under SSSIs, introduced in a panic by the government last year, has to go.  The announcement of its repeal has led to sequels of ‘betrayal‘.

Almost nothing in the UK has a blanket ban.  They are always evidence based tests and exception where the the evidence to protect is weak and the evidence to develop is strong.  That even goes for National Parks and Green Belts.  Except of course where the discretionary nature of  such decisions is undermined by knee jerk primary legislation.  There are great advantages in certainty over planning, but where the impact of certain developments cant be fully known in advance and is highly development and site specific, such as with windfarms, incinerators and fracking rigs there is advantages in making a decision following a full and objective environmental assessment.

Yes many developments will be unpopular.  They will give you a pain in the stomach approving them.  Particularly for local politicians.  But planning is often about deciding where unpopular uses have to go where national policy is in their favour.  The alternatives to an objective evidence based system is one based on cronyism, corruption, favoritism, fashion or dictat.  I would much rather have a system where an inspector hears evidence and sometimes makes a locally unpopular decision than one where decisions are based on whom a minister is sharing a Jacuzzi with – the system prevalent sadly in most of the world. Where this happens the cumulative impact of bad decisions is horrific, and if you want a planning system where things are so slow and clogged up that no hard objective decisions are ever made go to Rome and watch the litter in the streets, the horrible suburbs and the Romany camps along the Tiber and wonder why such places regularly voted to have such a terrible quality of life.

When it comes to unpopular uses planning often stands in for national policy. Don’t use local planning impacts as a surrogate for when you dislike national energy policy.    Dont like energy policy on solar farms/fracking rigs/windfarms, its so much easier to use local impacts as a surrogate and urge refusal whatever the evidence on those local impacts.  If that happens often governments of any com,lexion will simply strip local planning decisions makers of powers over local energy applications.

We don’t have undeground SSSIs we have terrestrial ones.  The impact is on water, water flows for miles from deep underground.  Whether a rig is precisely over an SSSI or not has little to do with whether it will harm the SSSI.  If the impact on water is harmful it will harm wherever the water flows, if not not.  So it is the evidence on water that matters not vertical propinquity.  You might as well ban all flying over SSSIs simply because it crosses an at grade line on a plan.  This is a malefaction on a map only not a planning impact.  There is no rational defense to an outright ban.  What its defenders are saying is whatever the evidence we should allow them.  If you think the risks are high then ban them altogether and be done with it.  If you think the risks should be assessed and be based on evidence then let them, be assessed and make a rational choice.

If you disagree with me please supply an argument that doesnt equate to fracking should be banned everywhere.  I might agree wit you but so long as it isnt we have to make decisions and you have no logical case.

3 thoughts on “Sorry but the Blanket Ban on Fracking in SSSIs was Irrational and Had to Go

  1. A few comments Andrew.

    There is no parallel to be drawn between planes flying over SSSIs and frackpads being built on them. If a frackpad is built on an SSSI it will almost certainly damage the interest for which the SSSI was notified. Whether that damage is irreversible or not will depend on the specific feature of interest. For features of interest that are vegetation or animals associated with that vegetation, then it is more likely than not, that the impact of building the frackpad, the new roads and pipelines to and from there and so on, will be severe and may well be irreversible. But SSSIs are a mixed bag and include geological SSSIs, where the impact of building a frackpad or associated infrastructure may not be significant.

    Now I think the point you were trying to make was that the impact of fracking on the water under the SSSI was akin to a plane flying over. That may or may not be true, depending again on the SSSI and its features of interest. If fracking alters the hydrology of a wetland SSSI, then there may well be a damaging impact on the interest features.

    I think the point of contention that really springs out for me, is why there is to be a moratorium on fracking in AONBs but not SSSIs. AONB is a landscape designation. AONBs are notorious for having failed to prevent wholescale damaging landscape character change as a result of modern intensive agriculture, while seeking to prevent much smaller local landscape character change from eg renewable energy developments.

    I can see the argument that the NPPF already includes mechanisms to protect sites such as SSSIs (or indeed AONBs). In which case apply it to all designations, don’t start picking and choosing between different ones. Personally I think the protection afforded landscape and nature designations within the NPPF is weak and we will see how well it stacks up in forthcoming Public Inquiries for two SSSIs at Lodge Hill (new town development) and Rampisham Down (solar power station development.) On the one hand the Lodge Hill developers are saying “we can move the interest features elsewhere, no damage done” on the other the Rampisham developers are saying “but our power station will do no damage to the interest features.” So in that sense two different elements of the protection afforded to SSSIs through the NPPF will be tested, along with a whole load of other related issues.

    • I think you make my case perfectly, and why the same logic should apply to AONB. In both of those cases the harm to SSSI issue will probably fail at appeal, but at least it will be tested and be based on the evidence.

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