Proposals to bestow Permitted Development rights on non-fracking drilling are a step in the right direction.
Earlier in 2018, the UK Government set out plans to consult on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), one of which would see some exploratory shale gas drilling benefit from Permitted Development rights.
It would apply only to stratigraphic or coring wells that are drilled with the intention of collecting rock samples to assist in understanding the subsurface and its characteristics.
Operators would no longer need to apply for planning permission for such wells but they would have to notify the relevant Minerals and Waste Planning Authority (MPA) of their plans and they'd need to comply with a set of standard conditions.
The move is intended to remove a planning bottleneck so that this low-risk geological evaluation work can be performed more speedily in order to better inform decision-makers about the role domestic shale gas production may one day play in substituting for higher emissions, higher cost and less secure imports.
It's not unprecedented
A range of mineral extraction activities ready benefit from Permitted Development rights - rights that are conditioned.
Part 17 of Schedule 2 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 deals with mining and minerals activities.
Class J – temporary use of land etc for mineral exploration - defines what is Permitted Development:
J. Development on any land during a period not exceeding 28 consecutive days consisting of–
(a)the drilling of boreholes;
(b)the carrying out of seismic surveys; or
(c)the making of other excavations,
for the purpose of mineral exploration, and the provision or assembly on that land or adjoining land of any structure required in connection with any of those operations.
It also tells us what is not considered PD:
J.1 Development is not permitted by Class J if—
(a)it consists of the drilling of boreholes for petroleum exploration;
(b)any operation would be carried out within 50 metres of any part of an occupied residential building or a building occupied as a hospital or school;
(c)any operation would be carried out within a National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, a site of archaeological interest or a site of special scientific interest;
(d)any explosive charge of more than 1 kilogram would be used;
(e)any excavation referred to in Class J(c) would exceed 10 metres in depth or 12 square metres in surface area;
(f)in the case described in Class J(c) more than 10 excavations would, as a result, be made within any area of 1 hectare within the land during any period of 24 months; or
(g)any structure assembled or provided would exceed 12 metres in height, or, where the structure would be within 3 kilometres of the perimeter of an aerodrome, 3 metres in height.
And then it sets out the conditions that apply to PD minerals exploration activities:
J.2 Development is permitted by Class J subject to the following conditions—
(a)no operations are carried out between 6.00pm and 7.00am;
(b)no trees on the land are removed, felled, lopped or topped and no other thing is done on the land likely to harm or damage any trees, unless the mineral planning authority have so agreed in writing;
(c)before any excavation (other than a borehole) is made, any topsoil and any subsoil is separately removed from the land to be excavated and stored separately from other excavated material and from each other;
(d)within a period of 28 days from the cessation of operations unless the mineral planning authority have agreed otherwise in writing—
(i)any structure permitted by Class J and any waste material arising from other development so permitted is removed from the land;
(ii)any borehole is adequately sealed;
(iii)any other excavation is filled with material from the site;
(iv)the surface of the land on which any operations have been carried out is levelled and any topsoil replaced as the uppermost layer, and
(v)the land is, so far as is practicable, restored to its condition before the development took place, including the carrying out of any necessary seeding and replanting.
It's clear from this that even where an activity is considered to be Permitted Development, it's not a free-for-all.
A fractious response
Campaigners opposed to shale gas extraction in the UK have been busy railing against the proposals and falsely equating it to the PD rights that allow homeowners to make minor alterations to their dwellings, such as installing a conservatory, without first obtaining planning permission.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As is often the case, the 'controversy' around the issue has been manufactured by NGOs, reguritated by a sympathetic media, and seized upon by populist politicians.
The truth, as borne out by those existing mineral extraction activities that are already Permitted Development, is that operators will still have to meet a set of conditions intended to ensure that such works will be capable of being carried out sensitively.
Once the government consultation closes, I expect we'll see conditions applied that control: proximity to residential dwellings and sensitive environmental receptors; drilling rig mast height; noise and lighting levels; operating hours; and the purpose of drilling, which will be limited to non-fracking, geological exploration wells and associated monitoring boreholes.
Making non-fracking drilling Permitted Development is a sensible proposal
Right now, we rely on overseas imports of gas for over half our needs. Last winter, on two occasions, those imports were severely disrupted, leading to shortages and causing energy prices (gas and electricity) to spike.
We're still feeling the after-effects. Because the price of gas remains so high, it's become cheaper to burn coal in elecricity generation and so that's what's happening - reversing the trend for using less coal and driving up emissions.
We need to get on with finding out if the UK's shale gas stores are as big as they are believed to be, and whether our geology is suitable for extracting it.
But delays in the highly politicised planning system mean we haven't been able to do that as quickly as we should have.
Making non-fracking drilling Permitted Development is a sensible means of accelerating this necessary work.
Whilst they're at it, the government should revisit the Permitted Development rights that small-scale renewables schemes benefit from extend them to larger developments - in return for lower or zero subsidies. Of course, if that happened, a different set of actors would cry foul and argue that it's a sign that democracy is broken and that their rights are being eroded...