Eric Pickles guilty of 'double standards' over energy planning applications

Green energy boss Dale Vince says communities secretary is applying greater local scrutiny to windfarms than fracking

The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, is guilty of "double standards" because of the much greater local scrutiny applied to windfarm applications compared to fracking plans, according to a green energy boss.

Greater consultation with local communities is demanded for wind turbine plans and, while wind applications are dealt with at a local level, shale gas plans go to the more distant county councils.

"Eric Pickles has become an outspoken advocate of localism, insisting that local voices are heard on planning decisions regarding wind power," said Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity. "Yet local voices are being completely bypassed when it comes to shale gas fracking. This is a clear double standard."

Onshore windfarms have become highly controversial, particularly in rural constituencies and since 100 Conservative MPs wrote to David Cameron in 2012, demanding planning rules were changed to enhance "the chances of local people defeating unwanted onshore windfarms" and that the subsidies were "dramatically cut". Since then, subsidies have been cut and tougher planning rules have been introduced. But communities minister Kris Hopkins told the Guardian he "made no apologies" for the changes to planning guidance.

Vince said the lighter scrutiny being applied to fracking projects makes it far harder for opponents to submit objections. In January, Pickles overruled the recommendation of the planning inspector and rejected an appeal by Ecotricity for a four-turbine windfarm on the Somerset Levels. There is only one turbine in the entire county.

Under rules developed by Pickles's Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), companies wanting to erect even a single turbine of more than 15 metres tall must conduct a "pre-consulation" with local communities before submitting the planning application. This requires the majority of local residents to be informed of the plan and given details of where to submit complaints. Pre-consulation is not required for fracking projects.

Once an application is submitted, wind power developers must allow at least 28 days for public consultation for any farm of more than 50MW, while just 14 days is required for shale gas plans. Furthermore, wind turbine applications are made to local authorities but fracking applications go to the Mineral Planning Authority (MPA), which in England is the county council or unitary authority. DCLG guidance on shale gas applications state: "MPAs should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy, when determining planning applications."

"Pickles said 'no should mean no' when it comes to wind projects but I think he is afraid to give the same local people a say on fracking," Vince said. "Ministers seem to be running scared of their own localism agenda, their own Frankenstein's monster. Local people should have a say on fracking, but these decisions are put in the hands of the obscure Minerals Planning Authority." Ecotricity has pledged not to invest in or supply gas from fracking to its customers and on Thursday said it would make a donation to the local anti-fracking group of a new customers' choice, if they switched to the company.

Hopkins said: "Inappropriate wind turbines can be a blot on the landscape, harming the landscape and heritage for miles around. We make no apologies for changing planning guidance to ensure that these issues are properly taken into account. Both mineral extraction and wind power are handled through a locally led planning process in line with established practices."

In January, a parliamentary committee reported that DCLG had rushed through a pro-fracking planning reform without proper scrutiny and despite overwhelming public opposition. The change means individual homeowners will no longer be notified of a planning application to drill or frack under their house. DCLG had allowed only six weeks for public consultation, not the 12 weeks usually required for "new and contentious" policies, but received 155 responses opposing the change and just seven in favour.

Caroline Lucas, Green party MP, said: "It's disgraceful that ministers are denying local residents the right to be notified directly when they're affected by shale gas drilling. Fracking is a dangerous, dirty and unnecessary technology that is completely incompatible with our obligations to tackle climate change and the government knows very well that public opposition to fracking is growing."

Planning experts have previously described DCLG planning guidance on fracking as biased. James Taylor, at law firm Simmons & Simmons, told trade magazine Planning Resource: "The way the document reads, it could be seized upon by anti-frackers as unduly biased. It pulls together pre-existing advice but puts the most positive spin possible."


Damian Carrington

The GuardianTramp

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