Sheffield politicians have spoken out against what they call an ‘absurd’ planning ‘loophole’ designed to smooth the path for fracking.
More than 850 councillors, MPs and other politicians across the country, including dozens of Tory rebels, have signed a letter opposing government proposals which would allow fracking firms to carry out exploratory drilling without the need for a planning application.
The signatories include 10 members of Sheffield Council, representing Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party; plus Jared O’Mara, the independent MP for Sheffield Hallam.
Under the proposals, companies could test for the presence of shale gas under what are known as permitted development rights, usually reserved for minor building work like sheds and extensions, meaning they would not have to apply to the local authority for planning permission.
Anti-fracking campaigners have criticised the move as an attempt to bypass local democracy, but ministers claim it is needed to help speed up the decision-making process.
The open letter calls on the Government to give local communities their say on any applications to drill.
Green Party councillor Douglas Johnson said: "The rules the Government's proposing are an abuse of the planning process.
"It's trying to use the permitted development loophole to allow fracking through the back door.
"That's meant for minor things like small extensions, and classing fracking as a minor development is obviously absurd.”
Labour councillor Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport and development, said: "I signed on behalf of Sheffield's Labour councillors because our view remains that fracking is dangerous both in the short term, potentially poisoning the water and causing earthquakes, and in the long term, by releasing more of the dirty fossil fuels responsible for catastrophic climate change.
"We need a renewable energy revolution in this country, but instead we're making it easier for multinational fracking companies to damage our environment."
Consultation on the proposed change ended last month and a decision has yet to be made.
The letter has been sent to the communities and business secretaries, James Brokenshire MP and Greg Clark MP.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said in a statement: “No one benefits from uncertainty caused by delays in planning decisions. We are committed to planning reforms to ensure quicker decision making on shale applications.”
Only exploratory drilling would fall under permitted development rights, with planning permission still required for full hydraulic shale gas extraction, which is better known as fracking.
The Government says fracking could provide ‘substantial benefits’, but the controversial process in which a mixture of water and chemicals is blasted deep into the earth to release shale gas has been banned in other countries.
No applications have yet been made to carry out fracking exploration in Sheffield, though INEOS was granted permission in August to begin tests just over the border in Eckington.
The chemicals giant was also granted a permit last year to treat fracking waste at a plant in Ecclesfield.
Jenny Gerrans, of Frack Free South Yorkshire, said: “It’s brilliant that so many councillors and MPs are coming together to oppose fracking and especially the undemocratic proposals regarding permitted development.
“Fracking could have a huge impact locally and one of the really big concerns is about what it will do to water supplies. It consumes a vast quantity of water, and we’ve already seen how low a long, dry summer can leave the reservoirs in the Peak District.”
INEOS Shale’s operations director Tom Pickering said it takes ‘very seriously’ the concerns of local councils and councillors but they must also take seriously the ‘concerns of the UK’s population whose electricity and heating are increasingly sourced from unstable foreign regimes’.
“We believe shale is a nascent industry that can in time further the UK's energy security at competitive prices whilst acting as a bridge to a low-carbon future,” it added….
“We welcome the Government’s attempt to help with planning rules that make it next-to-impossible to get a decision made in reasonable timescales.
“Using permitted development does not mean that developers have a free reign for exploratory drilling - the Environment Agency, the Health & Safety Executive, the Oil and Gas Authority and local council will continue to regulate the operation.
“The UK currently loses £500 million a month importing the energy that keeps our society functioning, when instead we have a national resource we should be accessing beneath our feet with all the jobs and investment it could provide.”
Although Jared O’Mara is the only Sheffield MP to have signed the open letter, other MPs in the city have previously voiced their opposition to fracking.