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Ministers' position on fracking is fascinating

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The government is fed up with the planning process slowing down the commencement of fracking operations.

Energy secretary Amber Rudd recently said ministers would intervene on planning applications for new fracking operations, in other words local authorities do not act quickly enough.

Communities secretary Greg Clark added: “No one benefits from uncertainty caused by delays in planning decisions.

“By fast-tracking any appropriate applications, today’s changes will tackle potential hold-ups in the system.”

It is fascinating how determined the government is about fracking.

Yet with the expansion of airport capacity in the south-east, delay has followed delay.

The UK economy will certainly not have benefited from the failure to provide more runways near London, but for some reason this decision has not been rushed through.

Similarly, investment in power generation, the replacement for Trident and a number of rail upgrades have all been delayed.

With contested issues such as fracking, the purpose of the planning system is to open up a public debate and then deliver mitigation for any problems caused by development.

This pattern is precisely the one adopted for big projects such as Crossrail and, indeed, High Speed 2, albeit outside the local planning system.

By effectively putting a ministerial override in place, the government will reduce the willingness of companies to mitigate the downside of fracking.

The nationalisation (because that is what it is) of local planning decisions is potentially the thin end of a fat wedge.

Once a precedent has been set, it is easy to imagine ministers will want to override councils about opposition to, say, new housing.

This recent decision is a step towards a national planning executive.

Faster and more positive local decisions would be made about fracking, housing, sewers and other infrastructure if the rewards for accepting such things were directly comprehensible to the people affected by them.

‘The national interest’ is not sufficiently powerful a driver. 

Having said this, during the past year or so ministers have used their powers to reject council decisions in favour of building onshore wind farms.

So the Whitehall position seems to be: accept fracking proposals but stop wind farm ones.

This position is not exactly consistent.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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