Fracking and the price of democracy
How much will fracking cost the people of Britain? The promises of jobs and economic wealth seem increasingly illusory in the face of the real costs already paid by local councils and residents.
All developments involve change and all bring benefits as well as costs which are not evenly distributed. The prospect of financial gain for the companies exploring for shale gas, the promise of new jobs and local prosperity come at a price.
The imbalance in benefits and burdens that are involved in all shale gas developments has already been experienced by local residents in Lancashire even though fracking has not really started yet. They report few benefits but a whole range of adverse health and social impacts such as increased stress, community conflict and an atmosphere of distrust and surveillance that are an effect of the prospect of fracking in the area.
However, the costs of fracking for the local communities are not merely figurative but also quite literally – monetary. The costs that local councils and communities have to incur in order to be able to participate effectively in the planning process raise questions about the price they have to pay just to have a say about fracking; the price they have to pay for democracy.
Let’s take Lancashire as an example. In June 2015, the local county council rejected the planning applications to explore for shale gas at two sites in Lancashire but the gas company – Cuadrilla – lodged an appeal and a public inquiry took place in Blackpool in February and March 2016.
It is believed that Cuadrilla spent millions on the planning and appeal process and the decision-makers have probably been made aware of it. However, we rarely talk about the costs borne in the very same process by the local authorities and communities.
The precise costs are difficult to calculate but a realistic estimate is that Lancashire County Council might have to spend even around half a million to consider those applications. According to the information obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the Lancashire County Council has invoices for £330,000 that it has had to pay just for the organisation of the public inquiry in Blackpool. This includes over £110k for consultants and £116k for security but under-represents the full costs incurred by the council because it excludes officers’ time which would be “highly significant” in the calculation of the total sum. We must also add to this all the costs incurred at earlier stages of the planning process at the council. These are no ordinary costs for a council that closes down libraries and cuts bus services to meet its budget.
Groups of local residents who oppose fracking have also raised over £160k for consultants, legal support and other expenses, which allowed them to participate effectively in the planning process. The final figure would have been much higher if some of the local groups had not secured legal representation pro bono. Additionally, many sympathetic local suppliers charged only symbolically. The residents who stepped forward and became most involved in the planning process spent their private resources and as many as 8 hours a day, often 7 days a week, to research fracking, write to newspapers and political stakeholders, assist their barristers, meet and coordinate with other groups and spread awareness about shale gas impacts. More than a regular week of a paid consultant, researcher or a campaigner. Nevertheless, some residents still concede that the costs associated with the planning process were a greater challenge than opposing Cuadrilla.
Shale gas exploration, to say nothing of extraction, has not even begun and we are yet to see the thousands of new jobs and economic prosperity that were promised for the austerity-stricken North. However, people in just one area have already had to spend around £700k and contributed unpaid work worth hundreds of thousands of pounds just to have a say about the company’s plans to explore for shale gas at just two sites in the area.
In the popular perception, Lancashire serves as a national test-case for fracking and that is probably why the consultations were more robust and the costs – higher than they would normally be once fracking is up and running. However, if engagement in the planning process becomes prohibitively expensive, it is unlikely that the decision will reflect a balance of interests.
This is why what happened in Lancashire in 2015 was so unusual. Despite the governmental pressures and imbalance in resources, local democratic representatives voted against Cuadrilla’s plans to explore for shale gas. Cuadrilla appealed, which was – in the words of the company’s CEO Francis Egan – “a natural step in the democratic process.” The Secretary of State for Communities called in the appeal decision and we are currently expecting his announcement which may determine the future of shale gas in Lancashire as well as the UK.
If he gives shale gas exploration a green light, fracking is going to happen in a country where more people are opposed to than support it; where a local county council votes against shale gas exploration and where many local residents are vehemently anti-fracking. It would seem that a formally democratic process no longer yields democratic results. Instead, actors with more financial resources and political backing use the democratic features of planning to subvert local democracy. How can this happen?
In addition to talking about the economic costs for the developer, one of the chief tactics used to exert pressure on decision-makers is to propagate narratives of delay. Gas industry and some media are no exception and Cuadrilla also warned the UK government that investors do not have “limitless patience”.
The implicit rationale for fast-tracking development is that lengthy inquiries and democratic deliberation impose an economic cost on the developer and put delivery of a project at risk. More often than not, forced facilitation of a development may also have an additional effect of stifling opposition because people need time to gather research and mobilise resources to engage with the decision-making process.
In addition to informal political pressures to fast-track fracking, the government also announced a formal disciplining mechanism for local planning authorities which have 16 weeks to decide whether to approve shale gas developments. Beyond that limit, ministers could step in and determine the decision.
However, a careful look at the calendar of Cuadrilla’s applications in Lancashire reveals that the finger of blame for extending the planning time frames has been pointed in the wrong direction. The 4.5k-page documentation submitted with the applications was first to be considered and the applications determined within 6 months. However, Cuadrilla kept submitting new information that was supposed to prove that fracking in the Fylde was safe and constituted an appropriate use of land. The deadline was later extended by 4 weeks because this additional information required further consultations. A week before the Lancashire County Council was supposed to make a decision, the company asked for a deferral so that it had time to provide information on additional mitigation measures which would address the concerns raised by the council’s planning officers in their recommendation to refuse planning permission. Following this request, in April 2015, the decision was delayed again. Cuadrilla extended the entire process by more than 12 months when it announced its plans to lodge an appeal.
In total, it has been more than two years from application to determination. The company took advantage of its democratic right to appeal and a fair consideration of its applications, which inevitably extended decision-making times. However, this fact was then used by many actors to complain that the associated processes took time and to put pressure on decision-makers.
The costs and delays created by the requirements of the planning process as well as by the developers who want their projects at any price are a problem not only for the extraction companies. They are also hugely draining for the local communities facing the prospect of fracking. The problem is that so far the narratives about delays and costs are more likely to be used as a proxy for justifying the government’s plans to move shale gas into national planning than as a democratic impulse to allocate and distribute time and costs in more productive ways. If shale gas is designated as “nationally significant infrastructure”, it would not require local consent. This move may be advantageous for the industry but would it be beneficial to the people in Lancashire?
Lancashire might have spent over half a million to defend its democratic decision. What else would the people of Britain have to give away to facilitate fracking? Let’s hope it’s not local democracy.