The anti-fracking movement has received a considerable boost after a proposed development in the South Downs National Park was unanimously blocked by the planning authorities in the face of growing public scrutiny of the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing.
The planning committee strongly rejected the application to explore for oil or gas at the protected West Sussex village of Fernhurst made by the fracking company Celtique Energie, which raised the prospect of a prolonged battle by threatening to appeal to Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to reverse the decision.
“The decision was unanimous and very firm. The message has gone out that robust evidence is vital to jump the very high hurdles set out in national planning policy,” said Margaret Paren, chair of the South Downs National Park Authority.
“The applicant has failed to demonstrate exceptional circumstances exist and that it would be in the public interest for such exploration to take place within the protected landscape of the South Downs,” she added.
Brenda Pollack, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: “This is a signal and a turning point in terms of developers thinking about which of their licence areas they need to direct their focus towards.”
“Without the widespread protests in places like Balcombe, the application wouldn’t have been so closely scrutinised. Much of the opposition is from Middle England – Tory voters are saying ‘no’ and politicians and councils are hearing that loud and clear. Without that pressure, councillors would have a harder job turning these kind of applications down.”
The rejected planning application would have allowed Celtique to explore for oil or gas in the area using conventional methods but the company would have had to secure a further permit to be able to frack in the area.
However, campaigners were concerned that a fracking application would swiftly follow because the geology of the area means traditional extraction techniques are ineffective. They saw this application as a test case, after the government insisted recently that fracking in protected areas such as national parks should only be allowed in “exceptional circumstances”.
“Sussex authorities have sent a clear message that the county is not prepared to be the testing lab for this inexperienced and controversial industry,” said Greenpeace UK climate and energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale.
Robert Gross, director of the Centre of Energy and Technology at Imperial College London, added: “As we’ve seen with wind farms and new power lines, local communities do not welcome intrusions in the landscape. Fracking has the added disadvantage that it is seen as ‘dirty’ rather than green. The Government will have tough job to push through a fracking boom.”
Geoff Davies, Celtique’s chief executive, reacted angrily to the ruling, raising the prospect of an appeal.
“We believe South Downs National Park Authority officers appear to have made their recommendation based on a subjective and unjustified interpretation of planning guidance. We appear to be arriving at a scenario whereby, in the face of Government policy, operators are being deliberately prevented from exploring in the south-east of England,” he said.
“We believe this proposal would be supported by the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State in the event of an appeal. We are considering our further options and a decision will be made in due course,” Mr Davies said.
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