13 Jan 2014

Fracking cash offer – phase one of a very public negotiation

Am in sunny Lincolnshire to see how the prime minister’s charm offensive on fracking is going down with a community on the frontline for drilling.

No. 10 has announced that it will go ahead with the incentives/bribes/fair shares (delete as applicable) approach it first floated in July. Councils affected by drilling for shale gas would get to keep 100 per cent instead of 50 per cent of the relevant business rates.

The shale gas companies are due to announce a direct offer to local householders that could follow.

What we’re seeing today, though, is one of the first phases of a very public negotiation. Councils have felt emasculated on many levels over many years. On fracking they find power suddenly in their grasp again. No fracking can take place without the say-so of the relevant council planning committee.

The councils are at pains to emphasise their primary interest is environmental assessments, and their duty to the council tax payers. Any attempt to block permission not based on sound scientific and environmental factors could be appealed against and overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. But if you can’t see pound signs in many councillors’ eyes, you’re probably not looking hard enough.

At the Lincolnshire/Nottinghamshire border where David Cameron visited a potential fracking site today, the only demonstrators were not local but from Lancashire.

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These protesters say the 1 per cent of earnings offer to councils is a scandalous bribe and compromises the independent judgement of councils. The councils say it’s not enough. The government says it’s a sensible balance, given that we can’t be sure that fracking is actually going to be a huge money-spinner.

The problem is that the government is having to combat some of its own enthusiastic language on fracking. If anyone can be accused of raising expectations of some sort of energy salvation, it could be argued that it is Conservative ministers in the coalition.

Anyway, it is going to be a big feature on the political and local government scene in the coming years as “gold rush” fever and environmentalist warnings go to war.

One report suggested that Cornwall was the only English county that didn’t have possible reserves and would be the only one guaranteed not to get applications for exploratory wells.

Nottingham University polling suggests that the public are evenly balanced between pros and antis, with some movement towards antis and scepticism when demonstrations top the bulletins.

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