Though the sitting tenant at 10 Downing Street has changed since the remarks were first uttered by David Cameron, the Conservative Government under Theresa May has demonstrated this week that it is still “going all out for shale”. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has overturned a ban on fracking in Lancashire imposed by councillors after objections to plans to drill the area for shale gas were launched by 18,000 local people.
When Lancashire County Council blocked plans by UK energy firm Cuadrilla, established in 2007 to explore the potential for fracking to help meet the nation’s energy needs, it cited concerns about noise and traffic. Residents’ objections were more likely motivated by fears that the controversial method for extracting natural gas and oil from under the earth would place residents at genuine risk; an early drilling project in nearby Blackpool provoked earth tremors.
Whether or not the environmental hazards of the practice are overestimated by anti-fracking campaigners (there is some indication that they are), the decision to overrule the desires of local residents and their elected representatives bears its own, not insignificant risks for Ms May and her Government.
Taking difficult but important decisions which are deeply unpopular yet in the national interest is part of ministerial life – but this is not one of them.
The Communities Secretary states that shale gas has the potential to create 64,000 jobs and provide a new domestic energy source. It is part of his and his colleagues’ role to ensure that our homes and businesses can keep the lights on; affordable energy quite literally powers the economy, and without a reliable energy source the nation’s growth could grind to a halt. Already the Government is resorting to extreme measures to keep the wheels turning, with some major consumers of energy, such as large factories, agreeing to turn off their energy-hungry machinery during periods of high demand. Clearly this situation cannot continue.
But fracking – particularly against the wishes of the people – is not the answer to the question of how we power our nation. The era of fossil fuel is now behind us. Even if the gas extracted through fracking is cleaner than coal, oil and North Sea gas, it is not a clean energy source. Rather than fighting legal challenges and overturning the thoughtful decisions of councillors, government investment should be channelled into new, green energy projects that neither risk damaging our natural environment nor require a £10,000 bribe, as mooted by the Government to convince the electorate to swallow the its controversial decision with a smile.
More importantly, the Conservative administration cannot have it both ways: either they want to give people responsibility for the success their own economies, and let them keep the rewards they achieve, or they do not. Policies such as the “Northern Powerhouse” and “Midlands Engine” rely heavily on the devolution of power, responsibility and funding to local politicians, businesses and citizens. Attempting to do so while, at the same time, intervening whenever the decisions local leaders take are not to the taste of bureaucrats in the centre, does not inspire the trust and confidence they’ll need to make such bold ambitions a success. No wonder so many councillors (particularly Conservatives, it should be noted) don’t believe those who stomp the pavements of Whitehall and Westminster when they say they want to rebalance the economy away from London and the South-east of England.
If Theresa May wants, like her predecessor, to go “all out” for fracking then she needs to find a way take her country with her. Dismissing the decisions of their own elected leaders is a poor place to start if that’s what she wishes to achieve.
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