Bramleymoor Lane: Response to Officer Report

Last Friday, Derbyshire County Council officers published their assessment of the application for exploratory drilling and their recommendation to Councillors who, on Monday 5th February, will decide the County Council’s position on this application.  Hugely disappointingly, Council officers did not recommend refusal of this application despite the clear planning reasons for doing so.

Along with many hundreds of other residents, I will be attending the County Council’s meeting today where they make their decision.  I will also be speaking to urge County Councillors to reject this application.

In anticipation of the meeting, I have sent the Committee a letter outlining my concerns regarding the report published.  Please find a copy of it below.

“Dear Councillors,

Last Friday, Derbyshire County Council planning officers published their assessment of the application by Ineos Upstream to drill on an exploratory basis at Bramleymoor Lane, Marsh Lane, Derbyshire.  I write in advance of your meeting on Monday to highlight a number of points for your consideration and to draw your attention to a number of concerns regarding the report published.

I am on record as strongly opposing this application and I have previously written to the County Council outlining my substantial objections.  I have enclosed a copy of this objection in case it is helpful.

I know much effort has been required on the part of County Council officers to review Ineos’s proposal and the many thousands of comments that have been generated by it.   I share the disappointment of the Council that the applicant has not entrusted the final decision with you, particularly given the fact that they were feeding additional information to your officers only a few weeks before they declared non-determination.  Hugely important decisions like this one should be taken locally.

Nonetheless, having reviewed officer’s comments, I am extremely concerned that the weighting proposed by them does not accurately reflect the reality on the ground.  Only a few days ago in Rotherham, similar planning and highways experts recommended refusal for a very similar application from Ineos – confirming that there is a clear basis for refusal in our area too.  Whilst I respect the officer’s assessment, you know that planning decisions are ones which require balance and judgement.

In our system, the ultimate decision (so long as it is not removed from them by the applicant declaring non-determination) rests not with experts but with elected representative such as yourselves.  Officer advice is to be respected and carefully considered but, ultimately, you have the choice as to whether to accept or reject it.  I hope, after weighing the evidence and the planning frameworks in place in North East Derbyshire, that you will conclude as I, and thousands of other people have, that this application does not conform with the planning policies in place.

I am particularly concerned about the following aspects of the report:

  • The Council’s assessment of the cumulative impact of activity on or near to this site;
  • The assessment and weighting placed on certain planning matters by Council officers, and;
  • The continued omission of a number of pieces of important data which I believe would be required in the event that the Council was minded to approve this application.

Assessment of cumulative impact

Whilst the report considers the impact of other (non-fracking) mining extractions nearby and other exploratory drilling proposals, it takes the clear position that “there are no potential cumulative impacts in relation to hydraulic fracturing, or further phases of shale gas development generally, to consider.” [1]

Divorcing the exploration for shale gas with its eventual production, as the officers propose, is an entirely artificial and arbitrary distinction to make.  Ineos is a company which, according to its own website, is committed to the production of shale gas.  The permissions of the licences that Ineos hold to undertake this work do not stop at simply exploration; indeed they are entitled “Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences.”  The eventual exploitation and extraction of shale gas underneath Bramleymoor Lane is the objective of this activity.  The application before you must be considered on that basis.

The officer report appears to make this arbitrary distinction as a result of placing great weight on paragraph 147 of the National Planning Policy Framework.  In my view, this is incorrect for the following reasons:

  1. As the officer’s report outlines, NPPF paragraph 147 provides only “limited guidance”;
  2. The NPPF guidance elsewhere requires local authorities to undertake a number of other activities with regards to their minerals policy (including defining Minerals Safeguarding Areas); states that you should take into account “the cumulative impact of multiple impacts from individual sites”; and states that “cumulative landscape and visual impacts” should be considered – meaning that the document needs to considered in the round, rather than placing excessive weight on a single paragraph;
  3. The Derbyshire Minerals Local Plan, which needs to be considered alongside the NPPF, states clearly that “proposals for mineral development will not be permitted … in particular where: development would result in an unacceptable cumulative impact on the environment of an area”, and;
  4. The Minister responsible for fracking (the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), during a debate in Parliament on the very subject of Bramleymoor Lane on 22 November 2017 made the following statement: “the cumulative effect of shale developments need to be taken into account.”

Having made the statement that future phases of fracking should not be considered hen deciding on this application, the report also appears inconsistent on this very point in a number of places:

  • Planning officers refer to the Government’s Annual Energy Statement and suggest that there is support for the type of development in question “as a means of securing indigenous energy supplies” – meaning, ultimately, that Bramleymoor Lane would have to be fracked[2];
  • Planning officers reference a High Court appeal decision which states that exploratory drilling should be treated as part of “mineral extraction” for the purposes of assessing whether it would be appropriate in the Green Belt[3];
  • Planning officers accept that exploratory drilling is a first step in assessing whether reserves are “worth exploiting[4], and;
  • Whole chunks of the report itself are dedicated to consideration of what happens beyond exploratory drilling (pages 47 – 49 assessment of the National Energy Policy, pages 49 – 50 discussion of regulatory regimes covering extraction).

Moreover, and most importantly, at least one phase of this application in front of you tomorrow is not actually for exploratory drilling but is instead requesting permission for the use of this site for activities on the assumption that fracking is taking place elsewhere.  You are being asked to give permission for Bramleymoor Lane to be used as a “listening well”.  Listening wells, by the reports own admission, would relate to “hydraulic fracturing from any well elsewhere[5].”

On that basis, it is fundamentally contradictory to suggest that you, as Councillors, must not consider the cumulative impacts of future phases of fracking at this or nearby locations whilst, at the same time, requesting that you give permission for this site to be used as a support location for such future fracking.  If you are being asked to give consent for a listening well which supports full-scale fracking elsewhere, then you must be able to consider the cumulative impact of that fracking.  And, if that is the case, you must therefore consider the potential for either exploratory drilling or fracking sites every few kilometres across the county from Bolsover and Killamarsh to Alfreton and Ripley, from Long Eaton to Ilkeston; something which is quite clearly contrary to all planning advice regarding greenbelt and landscape and visual intrusion.

For all of the above reasons, I believe that the treatment of cumulative in the report is erroneous and believe that you, as the ultimate deciders of Derbyshire County Council’s position on the matter, must take into account the more broad, cumulative impact of what might result from this exploratory drilling proposed.

Assessment and weighting within the report

I am also concerned about a number of conclusions that the report makes in proposing that the application should be not be rejected:

Greenbelt

The report itself acknowledges the following:

  1. That the proposed location is within the greenbelt;
  2. That the Government attaches great importance to greenbelts;
  3. That this particularly location is a “strategically important area of Green Belt”;
  4. That there is a general presumption against development in the Green Belt;
  5. That the NPPF advises that inappropriate development is harmful to the Green Belt;
  6. That substantial weight should be given to any harm to the Green Belt;
  7. That applications should only be approved in “very special circumstances”;
  8. That mineral extraction should only be permitted where it preserves the openness of the Green Belt, and;
  9. That the proposal “would conflict with one essential characteristic, openness and one of the purposes of the Green Belt” [6]

Yet, inexplicably, all of these accepted issues with the application are then dismissed by officers on the basis that the application will be “temporary”[7].  The report does not acknowledge policy GS8 in the North East Derbyshire Local Plan that temporary planning proposals “will be subject to the same planning, amenity and highway considerations applied to permanent uses.”[8]  On that basis, the multitude of issues that this application has with its greenbelt location – all of which are acknowledged by officers – simply cannot be dismissed on the basis of their temporary nature and, as a result, this application clearly contravenes policy relating to the greenbelt and should be rejected on that basis alone

Landscape and visual impacts

The report acknowledges that the visual impact of the application is likely to be greater than Ineos have initially suggested.  Despite this, officers conclude that the impact would not “be significant overall” outside of the use of a 60m rig during the initial stages and that any visual impact could be “softened through detailed design”.  According, however, to the applicant’s own documentation, the following industrial equipment and machinery would be on site during a period where officers consider there to be no significant impact:

  1. A perimeter 2.0m high fence;
  2. An additional 4.8m high combination of bunding and further fencing;
  3. 2 – 3 cabins of up to 3.0m height;
  4. Acoustic screening of up to 5.0m height;
  5. Up to 4 security cameras of up to 5.5m height;
  6. A lighting rig of up to 9.0m high;
  7. A 2.9m high power generator;
  8. 2 water tanks of up to 3.0m height;
  9. A 10m high emergency vent;
  10. A 4.5m high Kooney pressure control, and;
  11. A 4.0m high blow out preventor and skid and choke manifold.

All of this equipment would be placed on the brow of a hill within a valley at a location that can be seen from a number of positions from miles around and just a few hundred metres from the village of Marsh Lane.  It is simply not plausible to suggest, for example, that vents up to 10m high in a rural location are not significant. On that basis, it is my view that the weighting applied to visual and landscape impact is insufficient and the application should be rejected on this basis.

Omission of data

Whilst the officer’s report is comprehensive and detailed, it both (i) highlights a number of areas where it acknowledges that Ineos have not provided information and (ii) has not adequately dealt with a number of questions raised by objectors.

Areas of concern include:

  1. Assessments of HGV movements: Multiple objectors have highlighted the apparent inconsistency in the submissions by the applicant regarding whether the number of HGVs caused by exploratory drilling would exceed the 30% increase which would trigger further analysis and more detailed assessment. The officer report does not deal with this issue and therefore the report is inadequate in dealing with whether MP1 of the Minerals Plan has been contravened.
  2. Traffic impact: the report states that the development would not be “unacceptable in terms of traffic and highway safety”[9] yet does not deal with the issue that the Department for Transport would likely classify the impact of this application as high given that there are at least 200 houses on or close by to the roads in Coal Aston which is on the chosen route to access the site.
  3. Greenbelt: the report suggests the only one purpose of the greenbelt is transgressed by this application (the safeguarding of the countryside from encroachment). At least one other purpose, however, (the greenbelt should be protected in order to assist in urban regeneration through the recycling of derelict and other urban land) is not sufficiently assessed.  The officers accept that “the applicant has not provided any specific details on any alternative sites that were considered or reasons why they may have been discounted, for example no details on alternative sites outside of the Green Belt have been provided.”[10]  On this basis, it is technically impossible to assess whether this additional purpose of the greenbelt is contravened.
  4. Economic impact model: the report states that officers are of “the view that there would be some minor economic benefit from proposal.[11] No economic impact modelling has been supplied by the appellant, however. There is insufficient information provided to judge the economic impact of the proposal. No accurate assessment of economic impacts can be made until a model is released by Ineos.
  5. Impact upon birds: The Planning Officer agrees that the absence of records for lapwing and skylark should not be taken to infer their absence from the site. It also cannot be inferred that the imposing of conditions would be able to mitigate any issue here given that we simply do not know if there is an issue to be addressed. Further assessment must be undertaken to clarify this issue.
  6. Impact upon bats: Ineos suggest that no further surveys need to be taken as they have concluded that there is low or negligible likelihood of bat roosts. However, the Bat Conservation Trust advise that “photographs and detailed descriptions should be provided to the client as evidence that an adequate survey has been carried out and the conclusions are reasonable.”[12] Ineos have not provided this to my knowledge. I also share concerns that the bat survey was conducted during months when bats are in hibernation and not active. Ineos, in their response dated 12 September 2017, quote from the Bat Conservation Trust Guidelines (2016, 6.3.7): “PRF surveys can be carried out at any time of the year.[13]  However, the appellant chose to not draw attention to the second half of the sentence from the BCT which stated that “although the likelihood of discovering evidence of bats at different times should be considered.”
  7. Archaeology: The report itself acknowledges that the applicant’s assessment of the archaeological and cultural heritage of the site is defective given that it missed the potential existence of a colliery on the application site in the mid-19th century.[14] Further information is therefore needed to confirm the position on archaeology.

The outstanding nature of these questions means that the evidence base before you is not sufficiently comprehensive in the event that you decide, as I strongly hope you will not, to make a positive decision on this application.  There is, however, already a multitude of reasons, through the clear contravention of key parts of the planning frameworks, to reject this application tomorrow.

As a former Councillor and member of a planning committee dealing with large applications, I know the seriousness that you will be taking your responsibilities with regards to this proposal.  I also know the challenges of weighing up large volumes of evidence and competing interests.

The prospect of exploratory drilling at Bramleymoor Lane has caused, as you can imagine, an extraordinary amount of concern, anxiety and worry for residents living in North East Derbyshire and, particularly, close to the site itself.  Tomorrow’s application, if passed, would be the first step in the wholesale industrialisation of a rural area which has never been seen in any of our lifetimes in Derbyshire.  The sheer volume of representations received on this application demonstrates this concern.

At the planning committee, you are being asked to decide whether this application adheres to the Minerals Local Plan, the North East Derbyshire Local Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework.  In my view, it clearly does not.  Your colleagues in Rotherham came to a similar conclusion just a few days go for a very similar application.  I strongly urge you to reject this application on the planning grounds mentioned in this correspondence and my original objection.

Thank you for reading this additional letter at such short notice.  I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.

Yours sincerely,

Lee Rowley, Member of Parliament for North East Derbyshire”

 

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