This story is updated - see bottom.
The government’s announcement that National Parks will be protected from exploratory oil and gas drilling contains almost nothing new - based on a comparison of planning guidance from today and 2012.
In fact, so far as we can tell, the announcement actually makes it easier for developers to drill in national parks - by giving the Communities secretary the automatic right to overrule local authorities who reject an application.
Given the spin put out this morning - and sold to almost every paper - we feel we must have missed something, but here is the story so far.
Cabinet, marginal seats licensed in 14th round | Energydesk
The press release is fairly clear:
“The new guidance published today will protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes,” said new energy minister Matthew Hancock.
What does this mean in practice? Well it means adding a new paragraph to the government’s national policy and planning framework (223 since you’re asking)
The paragraph suggests that mineral authorities “should give great weight to conserving their landscape and scenic beauty.” That means that when fracking is proposed in a national park it should be refused except in “exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they [the plans] are in the public interest.”
How would you go about testing this?
The government has called onshore oil and gas exploration ‘vital’ and just about paragraph 223 it states states minerals authorities (in this case national parks) should have regard to national policy calling for energy to “come from a variety of sources. This includes onshore oil and gas”. Authorities clearly need some kind of criteria to judge the public interest against the park.
Well it so happens there is already something in the guidelines on how to balance things out.. “The assessment that needs to be carried out” the new paragraph suggests, is in a, um, old paragraph - 116, first published in 2012.
Following a paragraph which calls for authorities to give 'great weight' to parks paragraph 116 states that “Planning permission should be refused except in .. exceptional circumstances where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.” So far, so identical, only this time it actually states how you would test that:
Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:
the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way; and
any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.
This doesn’t suggest parks are excluded. Indeed in the government’s response to the consultation over the current shale gas round it explicitly ruled out excluding parks.
Instead it called for a “the environmental and heritage qualities” to be “carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons” - which is, so far as we can tell, exactly what they already proposed.
Indeed, the outgoing head of the Environment Agency - whose body would advise on any application for a park - has already suggested drilling could go ahead in parks, because the impact would be limited (so balancing in favour of the public interest).
Speaking to The Times Chris Smith said "I wouldn't rule [drilling in parks] out because provided it's being done properly, the visual impact can be very limited indeed."
There is one new development though.
Where an application to frack in a park is refused and the developer decides to appeal it will now automatically go to the Communities minister Eric Pickles to decide if the rules have been properly applied (previously he had to call it in).
Mr Pickles, it turns out, has given the go-ahead for exploration (although not fracking) in parks before - in the Yorkshire Moors. He doesn’t have to though, perhaps he’d feel differently about the South Downs.
So far as we can tell then, the new rules, it turns out, don’t protect national parks any more than they did before - they simply give the communities secretary the power decide whether to force authorities to allow drilling in them.
In the context of Chris Smith's comments some had feared the guidance would be changed the other way - to water down the impact of paragraphs 115 & 6 on shale gas operations (as noted in the comments below).
In that context the government's clarification that the existing rules remain the rules could be seen as 'protection' for parks albeit with the important proviso that the Communities minister will now automatically review any rejection of exploration in parks - which wasn't the case before.