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A bumpy road ahead for fracking

Infrastructure policy will struggle without the right institutions to support it.

A flagship policy of this government is the promotion of fracking – exploiting shale oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing. In 2014, David Cameron said that the Government was going ‘all out for shale’ as he announced tax incentives for councils that approved fracking in their area.

The government hopes to replicate a US-style oil and gas boom, displacing foreign imports, attenuating the effects of rapidly depleting North Sea reserves, and helping to ensure energy security at competitive prices. Yet, the plan has faced continuing opposition from local communities and environmental groups. In 2014, for example, the announcement of financial incentives for local authorities involved in fracking sparked tension at a shale gas site in Barton Moss, near Salford, Manchester. Environmental groups condemned the announcements as nothing short of an attempt at bribery. The scene was reminiscent of a long series of protests that took place in the village of Balcombe, West Sussex in 2013, which became a national focal point for the campaign against fracking. This week saw yet another blow to the industry. Lancashire County Council rejected a planning application by Cuadrilla to drill up to four wells and undertake exploratory fracking for shale gas in a site at in Little Plumpton near Blackpool, on the grounds of visual impact and unacceptable noise. Last week the council rejected another bid by Cuadrilla to frack at another site, Roseacre Wood, on the grounds of adverse impacts of traffic on rural roads. This week’s decision went against the assessment of the council’s chief planning officer, who had backed the plan earlier this month, after months of campaigning by both sides. Cuadrilla is expected to appeal, a process that could take up to two years. The debate that took place last week illustrated the nature of the concerns that bedevil some members of the local community, and their lack of trust in central government and regulatory arrangements. The FT reported that several councillors had expressed concerns about safety, despite regulators declaring it safe. Councillor Paul Hayhurst said he did not believe the reassurances about fracking safety by regulators, stating that ‘these are government agencies — a government that is committed to shale gas and a government that has refused to set up…a single independent regulator for the industry…I am not anti-fracking or anti-Cuadrilla, but we have got to protect people’. Remarks of this nature are a reminder for politicians and the industry alike of the challenges that need to be addressed if fracking is to have any role in the UK’s energy mix. They also echo our research on the political economy of infrastructure, which indicated that local community opposition stems from complex public perceptions about the impact of projects, the trustworthiness of the participants in the planning of infrastructure, and the fairness of the process and its outcome. Financial compensation, on its own, is incapable of tackling these issues comprehensively and effectively. On the contrary, combined with other top-down decision-making processes, it even risks sharpening perceptions that certain projects are being imposed upon local communities, triggering further opposition. Our review of the evidence concluded that at the heart of this problem lies an institutional gap. The UK lacks deliberative institutions that effectively engage politicians, experts, interest groups and local communities in the policymaking process. Until this institutional gap is filled the Government risks finding its attempts to go all out for shale thwarted by unconstructive interactions between party-political tactics, pressure from interest groups with legitimate claims on infrastructure decisions, and hostility from local communities to individual projects.
Administration
Cameron government
Publisher
Institute for Government

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