The eyes of the world were on Lancashire County Council on Monday 29 June – and Little Plumpton, a quiet rural spot in the Fylde, situated in West Lancashire. The previous week had seen a previous planning application to frack the Fylde village of Roseacre thrown out by Lancashire’s councillors and another, for seismic arrays at the same site, rather bizarrely given the stamp of approval.
The planning officer had recommended that the application to frack at Little Plumpton (Preston New Road) be given the go-ahead as there were no valid reasons for turning it down. If they turned it down and fracking firm Cuadrilla appealed, the officer said there could be steep financial penalties for the council. A vote to refuse Cuadrilla’s application to frack Preston New Road was taken, resulting in seven in favour, seven against and one abstention. It was decided to adjourn until the following Monday as councillors asked for that advice to be provided in writing. We had been so close to getting this application refused – now the agony was to be prolonged until the following week.
So we had one weekend. What could we do? The Frack Free Lancashire machine, which represents almost 40 local groups, went into overdrive. Both the Preston New Road Action Group and Friends of the Earth each obtained independent legal advice that confirmed the view that the committee would have valid reasons for refusal on grounds of noise and landscape, and that the risk would be small if it went to appeal. How were we to get this information to the councillors though? The planning officer had made it very clear that there would be no further opportunity for public participation, or for members of the public to circulate written evidence collected over the weekend to any of the councillors.
The value of having many small grass roots groups under the Frack Free Lancashire umbrella is that we are able to act nimbly and quickly. It didn’t matter that it was the weekend – this precious legal advice was hand-delivered to all the relevant councillors, along with greetings cards and good wishes expressing our empathy for them. We have always appreciated the pressures they were under – meddling from central government, conflicting advice, tons of documents, and now the threat of financial penalties. We also needed to tell them that we’d decided that in the event of an appeal, we would crowdfund in order to raise the necessary cash to pay for any costs incurred.
Monday dawned and we found ourselves back in the council chamber, enviously leaving some of our colleagues outside in the sunshine, where a large crowd of supporters was gathering – much larger than we had dared hoped for. After all, many people had taken time off work, re-jigged schedules or had travelled from outside Lancashire in order to offer support the previous week.
We were nervous – this was crunch time. Most of us admitted that we hadn’t slept well over the weekend. The national and local press had gone into overdrive and nearly all, without exception, were predicting that permission was bound to be granted and that Lancashire was about to become the test ground for fracking in the UK.
A tetchy atmosphere pervaded the council chamber, with the chair and councillors sniping at each other. It was agreed that there would be a ten minute adjournment to look at our new legal advice received over the weekend. It seemed that the councillors were to see it after all. It was being taken seriously.
It was a tense time. Would the council take on board this latest legal advice and make a decision based on the best interests of the community and the people they represented, or would they kowtow to the wishes of a planning pfficer who was under pressure from George Osborne to make planning an easy passage for Cuadrilla? We dared to hope that this new information might be influential. The councillors came back in, there was more discussion – they took a vote 9-4, with one abstention. The chamber erupted with a noisy standing ovation. We had won! Minutes later the committee unanimously voted to also throw out plans for seismic arrays at Little Plumpton.
We emerged from the chamber into the sunshine and to the sounds of hundreds of happy people. Amid all the hugs and kisses was a general air of astonishment. We always believed that we could stop this but we had been faced with the very real possibility that the democratic process could be determined by councillors’ fear of legal fees.
Hats off to Lancashire councillors who had the courage to listen to their constituents. What a great victory for localism – and what a huge blow to a government that said it was ‘going all out for fracking’!