In a move to boost the shale gas industry, the Government has announced changes to the planning system to ensure that applications for the exploration and development of shale gas will be dealt with quickly.

The announcements appear in a joint statement made by the Departments for Energy and Climate Change, and Communities and Local Government.  They follow in the wake of Secretary of State Amber Rudd's ministerial statement on 10 August, in which she pledged continuing support for the shale gas industry, but singled out the planning system as an obstacle to the timely delivery of projects.

A summary of the measures announced is as follows.

  • Planning applications for shale gas exploration and development will be subject to particular scrutiny by CLG Secretary of State Greg Clark.  He will "actively consider" calling these in for his own determination, with priority given to any such called-in proposals.
  • "Underperforming" LPAs – i.e. those that repeatedly fail to determine planning applications within statutory timeframes – will be "identified".  Thereafter, when further applications are made to those authorities, the Secretary of State will consider whether he should determine those himself.
  • As to planning appeals for shale gas proposals, these will be "treated as a priority for urgent resolution".
  • Furthermore, the Secretary of State "may also want to give particular scrutiny" to such appeals.  Accordingly he will revise the criteria used to decide which appeals to recover for his own determination, so that shale gas proposals are specifically included for consideration.  This will apply for a period of two years after which it will be reviewed.
  • Finally, amendments to permitted development rights will allow the drilling of boreholes for groundwater monitoring without planning permission, as proposed in the consultation issued in March.  Meanwhile, views on proposals for further amendments are invited; these would extend permitted development rights to borehole drilling for seismic investigation and to locate and appraise shallow mine workings.  The consultation runs until 24 September.

These announcements come in the aftermath of Lancashire County Council's decision, in June, to refuse permission for drilling at two sites between Preston and Blackpool (see our previous newsflash available here). This decision represented a blow for the industry, and frustrated hopes for the early and widespread deployment of the technology.  The new measures will impact the progress of Cuadrilla's appeal in both cases, as well as Third Energy's recent application for permission in Yorkshire.

By allowing, where necessary, control of decision making to be taken out of the hands of LPAs - where local political influence can be decisive on controversial projects – these measures will go some way towards addressing the frustrations of companies like Cuadrilla over the time it takes to gain permission.

Similarly, the prospect of prompt decisions on planning appeals will provide reassurance.  Delays in the planning system are the enemy of all development proposals; in complex and controversial projects, however, where progress at the application stage is often slow, further hold ups in the appeals system can be particularly damaging.

On the other hand the changes clearly fall some distance short of creating what has been described by some commentators as a "fast track" regime for shale gas development.  Plainly, Government intends that most applications will continue to be dealt with in the normal way by LPAs where, in practice, planning committees will find it difficult to approve projects against which there is hardened local opposition.

Further, the new measures contrast to an extent with calls from the Independent Task Force on Shale Gas for increased community engagement. Certainly, developers should be alive to the desirability of maintaining their social licence to operate and of increasing confidence levels in the sector.

All in all, the announcement represents a positive statement of support, and a clear endorsement for the future of the industry.  Finally, it is not inconceivable that, without evidence of more balanced and efficient treatment of future applications, further and more significant changes might lie ahead.  This week's announcements might be taken as such a signal.