On 28th July the Government announced three further steps aimed at “creating the right framework to accelerate unconventional oil and gas development in a responsible and sustainable way”:
- Commencing the 14th Onshore Licensing Round
- Publishing new planning guidance for National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites
- Announcing the Secretary of State’s intention to consider deciding planning appeals himself in these sensitive areas.
14th Onshore Licensing Round
DECC commenced the 14th Onshore Licensing Round by inviting applications for new onshore licences in the areas defined in the Strategic Environmental Assessment (“SEA”) for further offshore licensing (which was published in December 2013 and consulted on until end of March 2014). The previous (13th) Round of onshore licensing was in 2008. Applications under the 14th Round must be submitted by 23rd October 2014.
Licence applicants under the 14th Round will be required to submit a new Statement of Environmental Awareness, to demonstrate their understanding of environmental sensitivities relevant to the area proposed for licence, and to set out options for addressing those and the approach to establishing the eventual plan for operations.
New planning guidance
In response to consultation responses on the SEA, the Government published new planning guidance for unconventional hydrocarbons. The new guidance appears in the Minerals section of the Government’s online Planning Guidance website.
The new guidance states that in National Parks, the Broads, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty states, where applications represent major development, planning permission should be refused except in exceptional circumstances, and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. The guidance also states that mineral planning authorities should give great weight to conserving the landscape and scenic beauty of these areas, and to the conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage in them.
The new guidance for World Heritage Sites states that where a proposed development for unconventional hydrocarbons would lead to substantial harm to or loss of a World Heritage Site, mineral planning authorities should refuse consent unless wholly exceptional circumstances apply.
Recovery of appeal decisions by Secretary of State
For the next 12 months, where there are any planning appeals against refusal of consent for unconventional hydrocarbon development in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and World Heritage Sites, the Secretary of State will consider whether or not to recover jurisdiction and take the decision himself (rather than leaving it to a Planning Inspector). This is so the Secretary of State can “ensure the Government’s intentions in respect to development concerning unconventional hydrocarbons in these areas are given appropriate effect”. The position on the recovery of appeals will be reviewed after 12 months.
The start of the 14th Licensing Round shows the Government’s continuing support for the development of shale gas, which has already benefitted from simplified planning application requirements, and is currently the subject of a consultation on underground access which runs until 15th August 2014. The new guidance on sensitive areas does not rule out shale gas development in those areas altogether, but shows the policy tests which applications will need to meet. Permission can be granted in sensitive areas, but only in exceptional circumstances, and if it is demonstrated that the projects are in the public interest. The Secretary of State will now have the ability to decide for himself whether a proposed project has satisfied these tests, and will be able to overturn local planning decisions refusing development in these areas if he considers appropriate. Whether or not the recovery of planning appeals is continued after 12 months may depend on how the Government considers the planning system is performing in meeting the needs for shale gas development while at the same time giving appropriate protection to important and sensitive areas.