Ministers have opened the bidding process for companies to obtain licences to explore for shale gas in a move which could eventually see fracking activity across the UK.
At the same time the Coalition has made it clear that new planning guidance will strengthen the safeguards covering operations and activity in:
- Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
- World Heritage Sites
- National Parks
- The Broads.
The Coalition has stressed that mineral planning authorities should give great weight to conserving the landscape and scenic beauty of those areas and to the conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage.
Applications which represent major developments in National Parks and AONBs should be refused, states the new guidance “except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that they are in the public interest”.
Where a proposed development would lead to substantial harm to or loss of a World Heritage Site, mineral planning authorities should refuse consent unless “wholly exceptional circumstances apply” says the guidance.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will give particular consideration to recovering planning appeals arising from these types of developments for at least the next 12 months.
And the Department of Energy and Climate change, which licenses exploration bids, has stressed it will require detailed Statements of Environmental Awareness to be submitted with licence applications for those areas, to demonstrate applicants’ understanding of the environmental sensitivities relevant to the area proposed.
The licences now being bid for would provide the first step to starting drilling – but do not give absolute agreement to drill.
The Government has stressed that any further drilling application will require planning permission, as well as permits from the Environment Agency and sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive.
Some 506 parliamentary constituencies are covered by the exploration area which includes 10 of the UK’s 13 national parks and nearly half the principal aquifers as well as all 10 of the UK’s biggest cities.