Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Frodsham's Fracking Debate - Friday 22 January 2016

Graham Evans MP held his second fact finding fracking debate last Friday at Helsby High School.  This one was for Frodsham residents and around 150 of us were present.



















Representatives from the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive, Public Health England and Ineos were joined by local valuer Eddie Cottrell and food safety expert Professor Robert Jackson.  Each member of the panel was given 5 minutes to put their position, and then the debate continued with questions being put from the audience.

Some very pointed and difficult questions were put - but importantly the meeting was held in a good, earnest spirit and each member of the panel was listened to with respect.

Whatever your position on fracking and the potential extraction of shale gas - or what is known as 'novel hydrocarbons' in planning terms - we need to understand the practical, legal and regulatory jigsaw pieces that would all need to be in place before extraction could even be considered.

Practicalities

  1. Are their shale gas reserves present in the strata? 
  2. Are the reserves present in sufficient quantity that they can be exploited economically?
  3. Can those reserves ever be practically exploited - is the strata suitable?
  4. Can they be exploited safely and without harm, to human health or the wider environment?
  5. Is the world price for oil and gas sufficient to allow for an economic return in any event?
  6. Can the exploration and exploitation work be funded?
  7. Can those works and their consequences be adequately insured?
  8. Are there incompatible land uses in the vicinity that would rule out exploitation?
  9. Have the landowners given consent for the exploration / exploitation?
  10. What is the aftercare for closed wells?
  11. How would any Enviromental problem be dealt with?

Planning and Regulatory matters

  1. Does the operator have permission to explore for shale gas - in other words is there a PEDL licence in place?
  2. Does the operator have planning permission for the proposed development works?
  3. On the assumption that all the practicalities have been satisfied - does the operator have a permit from the Environment Agency permitting the exploitation works - which would require a safety case and full disclosure of what is to be done and how it is to be done - as well as dealing with well closure, well failure and aftercare once decommissioned.
The PEDLs are granted in rectangular blocks of land running to many square miles.  Frodsham, the parish, lies in two separate PEDL areas.  The PEDL granted by Labour in 2008 and held by IGas covers the western side of Frodsham marshes - and doesn't encompass most of Frodsham the town and the residential area.   At the backend of 2015 IGas and their contractor's Tesla were carrying out seismic studies in this area.  You can see the area studied in one of my earlier blogs.

The PEDL that covers the town and residential part of Frodsham was only granted at the end of 2015 to Ineos by the present government.


As you could perhaps expect the debate and discussions centred on many of these issues.

We learned many interesting things from the panel members:

  • 60% of gas used in the UK is imported;
  • natural gas (methane) is a feedstock for much of the chemical industry;
  • The regulators indicated that they were confident that they could regulate the industry safely and effectively;
  • The Environment Agency stated that they are confident that the fracking chemicals used in the UK can be safely regulated and the resultant waste, water usage, and treatments can be regulated effectively;
  • Public Health England stated that they considered the risks to public health from fracking to be low if it was properly regulated;
  • There was widespread agreement that the real issue was well-integrity.  There would be no problems where there was well-integrity however if well integrity failed Professor Jackson indicated there could be issues over ground pollution and risks to the food chain and potentially human health;
  • Ineos stated that they would leave a buffer zone around towns, and that they would not frack unless it was economic to do so;
  • Ineos stated that for each 16km2 area they would need 3 well sites - each the size of a football field and that each of those sites would have 6-8 wells on them.  The well heads would be no higher than the height of a table.  There would be no industrialisation of the countryside - although there would be c6 months work of drilling etc. to prepare the sites;
  • Ineos have no intentions of exploiting their Frodsham PEDL for the moment;
  • Ineos believe that many of the issues seen with fracking around the world have been the consequence of poor practices that would not happen here.  For example in the UK 3D seismic studies are mandatory, water re-injection will not be permitted etc.
  • Eddie Cottell made the point that CWaC, at present, have little by way of planning policy to protect locals and the environment beyond a few lines in the Part 1 local plan.  As such any planning application would only have to satisfy national planning policy.
The questions from the floor were, as one can imagine, largely about safety, human health and environmental protection.  There was a recurring theme about the safety and aftercare of wells and well heads once they had been decommissioned and how any problems would be dealt with.

This is what I raised:
Having explained that I was a Cllr for Frodsham and also a regulatory lawyer whose work brings me into contact with the HSE and EA and was therefore in a position to state a 'plague on all your houses' I went on to state...

'First can I just echo the comments that Eddie's made.  

There is a big issue about the Cheshire West Local Plan.  It got to its Part 1 stage before the last election and its got to get through its Part 2 stage.  And it is the Part 2 stage that will have, I hope, the more detailed policies when it comes to fracking and other novel hydrocarbons.  

Unfortunately there have only been two meetings of the Local Development Plan Framework [Group] since May.  One was held, but it didn't have fracking on the agenda.  The Labour Chairman didn't put it on.  Another meeting was cancelled, apparently through lack of business - I don't understand why that was - and we have a meeting scheduled for Monday and fracking isn't on it.  

So can I encourage everyone here to write to Cheshire West and say what [Cllr] Lynn [Riley] and I said at the full council meeting on 10 December: 'Just get on with it!'

The second issue that troubles me, and we look around our Estuary here and we see far too much evidence of it ...is the question of the erosion of local democracy.

You look at the planning permission that was granted by the Labour Secretary of State for the Ince Resource Recovery Park with its two incinerators, you look at the wind farm development which was granted by a Lib-Dem Secretary of State ... and the things that are in common with those two developments are that the locals didn't want either of them in sizeable numbers yet they were foisted upon us.

The issue I have is a question of local democracy.  What I'm arguing for in the Local Plan is that anyone who seeks to bring forward fracking is going to have to demonstrate widespread public support.  In order to do that you are going to have to make sure the public is educated and goes along with you... if that's what you want to do.

Its also a question of making sure that these developments are properly safe, and properly bonded and insured.  And the problems we have heard of tonight... from my point of view this is a non-starter unless industry is going to put a 'big wadge of cash down' that is going to sit there and be available, if, God forbid, there are problems that need remediating in the future.

If insurance isn't available to cover these sorts of issues, again, from my point of view forget it.  There is no point in putting people's livelihood and health at risk if we are not going to be able to sort the problems out if they go wrong.

So my real question is this.  Do you support the idea of greater local participation in the decision making?

And Tom and Tom, as Ineos are here, and as I am free to criticise Ineos... 

When Peel put in their application for the Ince Resource Recovery Park air quality was an issue for us and air quality is an issue for us in Frodsham.  We got Peel to pay up a contribution for our state-of-the-art air quality station at the Manor House Primary School.  We asked Ineos to jointly fund it, as Ineos were putting in the 'mother of all incinerators' and you refused.  

I have made sure that the people of Frodsham know you have refused to part fund our air monitoring.  Would you reverse that decision?

Because the issue is also, for me, that I want industry to be good neighbours.  We've heard how important industry is to this area.  Please don't take us for granted.  Please take us on your journey with you, look after us. Be good neighbours with us.

What's your position on local democracy and local decision making?'

Tom Crotty when responding stated that so far as Ineos was concerned that they see local engagement in the process as critical.   He continued:

'We do not want to push water uphill.  We do not wish to be  involved in an activity where we have complete local opposition to it.  It's not sensible.  It's not a sensible way to do business.  That's why we're putting a lot of effort into local engagement, local communication, trying to get the facts out, trying to avoid jargon... and engage with people over the next couple of years at every stage of this process....

I can't comment on the specific issue around the air quality monitoring, I don't know... but I can talk to my colleagues and see what the issue is there... I have no idea.  We want to be open with people from day one.'

The EA then commented on the permitting procedure and indicated that any potential permit would go out for public consultation when it 'was almost ready to be issued.'

I then came back on the EA:

... 'as the Professor said earlier on there is a huge issue of trust with our regulators.   The regulators mean well but you are very, very poor when it comes to public consultation.  We need more than just 'drop-ins.'  And it is like the criticisms I have of Peel.  They hold drop in events and have consultations where only 400 people out of 18,000 responded.  If you are serious about consultation it is a letter-drop through everybody's letter box.'


If you want to learn more about Lynn and my views on fracking please view the videos on Frodsham Conservatives's Vimeo channel.  

This video sets out the basis of the Cheshire West and Chester Conservative Group on fracking and novel hydrocarbons and this video is an extract from the CWaC debate from 10 December 2015 where we told the Labour group 'just to get on with it.'  

The 10 December debate was important for several reasons including, notably that it was at this debate (you can link to the full meeting here) that the Borough Solicitor confirmed that the CWaC Labour Group's manifesto commitment to have a moratorium on fracking was unlawful.  This debate also followed the Government's announcement that it would determine planning applications for fracking if council's didn't do so efficiently - and that prompted me to say that I would oppose the Government in this, if that is what the locals wanted.

You can also see comments I made here at Frodsham Town Council 's meeting on 11 January 2016.

Update: I chased CWaC on Monday 25 January 2016 over not getting on with developing planning policy to cover novel hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation.  I specifically addressed the Local Development Framework Working Group over this as, notwithstanding three meetings now (only two of which have actually been held) we don't even have a timetable showing when fracking policy will be discussed.















Saturday, 23 January 2016

Council Tax in Frodsham - it isn't looking good

Since CWaC was created in April 2009, in Frodsham, we've seen a real terms decrease in council tax paid of 14%.  Throughout this time the Council was run by the Conservatives. This is in stark contrast to the time of the Blair/Brown Government (where council tax rose 112% in cash terms and by 40% when you take account of inflation.)

Unfortunately the prudent approach taken by the Conservatives locally looks set to be reversed in the now Labour led CWaC.

Some background - Council Tax in Frodsham:
In 2015-16 a Band D household paid £1,532.99 in total. 
The amount we pay in Frodsham is made up of 4 component parts:

Precepting authority
Band D
1
CWaC
£1,267.92
2
Police and Crime Commissioner
£156.23
3
Fire and Rescue Authority
£70.40
4
FTC
£38.38


Council tax in 2016-17

CWaC
CWaC look set to raise the Council tax by 2% the maximum permitted without a referendum and a further 2% for adult social care.

On the assumption this proves to be correct the decisions likely to be taken by CWaC will add around £50.72 to a Band D council tax.  We will know whether this proves to be correct in February.

It is also likely that the special expenses regime that favours areas like Frodsham, where services such as part paying for our PCSO, our Christmas Lights and play areas are paid for by the Town Council will be greatly reduced in scope.   This may well mean that the council tax in Frodsham increases yet further or that we are compelled to take a disproportionate share of costs.  Some people see this as double taxation.

When the special expenses arrangements were created Frodsham benefited by around £8 per Band D property.

Police and Crime Commissioner
The Police and Crime Commissioner is considering his options - however as Cheshire Police raises the 10th lowest police precept in the country he will be allowed to breach the 2% barrier and raise the council tax by £5 (i.e. 3.2%) should he wish to do so.  I suspect he will ask for £5.


Fire and Rescue Authority
I envisage that the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Authority will also seek to increase their element of the council tax by 2%.  I'm not aware whether they will be allowed to increase the council tax by more than this under similar arrangements that the Police and Crime Commissioner may be able to use.

Frodsham Town Council
FTC (which is not limited by the 2% barrier) has just announced that it will be raising its element of the council tax by £19.78 to a total of £58.16.  This is an astonishing rise of 51.54%.  

This is largely because the council took the decision in the summer of 2015 not to sell the Park Lane play area after it had funded the Churchfields Play Area improvements out of reserves.  It had previously budgeted that it would receive a significant capital receipt that would have paid for the Churchfields scheme.  The Frodsham wide consultation had shown widespread support for selling Park Lane in preference to raising the council tax.  

This rise is also partly due to Labour run CWaC withdrawing the new homes bonus payments to all Town and Parish councils which I mention again below in more detail.

The likely out-turn for 2016-17:

CWaC - an increase of at least £50.72
Police and Crime Commissioner - an increase of £5
Fire and Rescue Authority - an increase of £1.41
Frodsham Town Council - an increase of £19.78

Total likely increase - £76.91 or more than 5% when inflation is near zero.


Background to 2016-17 budget round
The Government is continuing its commitment to restrain public spending to play its part in balancing the country’s books. There are significant changes to the way in which Local Government is funded in train.  By 2020 councils will no longer collect local business rates, send them to London and then receive some of that funding back to run local services.  By 2020 councils will be able to keep their local business rates (not just the growth in them).  The aim is that by 2020 councils should be self funding – and receive no central government grants.  That should benefit areas like CWaC who already subsidise less efficient urban areas.

Labour’s attack on Frodsham
Labour have  already indicated that they will remove the payment of the new homes bonus monies to all town and parish councils.  The Conservatives passed 20% of the funds it received from Central Government directly to those communities where new building had taken place. Over the last few years FTC has benefited considerably – with payments of £35k and £27.9k in the last 2 years, all of which goes directly into new projects or to keep local council tax down.

Labour are about to consult on the imposition of CIL - the community infrastructure levy which will be payable when a development site receives planning permission for new houses or shops.  

The levy will be used to fund infrastructure throughout the Borough.  However the proposed plans look set to exempt Ellesmere Port, Northwich, Winsford and Blacon (part of Chester) from paying any CIL - meaning that it will be the rural part of the Borough, like Frodsham and most of Chester that will end up paying for the Borough's infrastructure improvements - which, no doubt, will disproportionately favour the urban areas.  

This looks set to increase the price of new houses in the areas where the CIL is charged as the developer will almost certainly pass the cost on.  

The levy is likely to be set at £110 per square metre of new floor space - one of the highest rates in the country.  A typical modest new home can range between around 70-100sq metres meaning a charge of between £7,700 - £8,470 per property.  There will be some offset in terms of floor space being replaced and smaller scope for s106 payments.  However, in my view this will act as a disincentive to invest in places like Frodsham and push up new house prices.


And all this is ever before we get onto the likely imposition of car parking charges, the loss of our local tip - all of which look very likely under Labour... Then add to this their apparent failure to listen to local people about what the real priorities are such as putting 20mph speed limits ahead of other more pressing needs such as dealing with traffic pollution on the A56 and improving pedestrian safety on Manley Road... none of this is looking good in my view.




Monday, 11 January 2016

What are our highways improvement priorities?

What are our highway priorities in Frodsham?

Well, according to Labour controlled CWaC - it is the introduction of 20mph zones in residential areas.  On 6 January 2016 CWaC's cabinet approved setting aside £800,000 over 4 years to introduce 20mph zones in residential areas throughout the Borough.

A number of us addressed the Cabinet making the point that the previous Conservative CWaC controlled council supported the introduction of 20mph zones in residential areas where the majority of residents who lived on the affected roads supported it.  Labour has revised this policy - doing away with the need for the majority of residents to agree to the changes.

Whilst I'm delighted that money has been found to make highway improvements I believe we have other more pressing needs at the moment such as:

  • pedestrian safety on the 'S bend' on Manley Road;
  • vehicle pollution problems on the A56 - largely centred on the Fluin Lane/St Hilda's Drive junction caused by queuing in rush hour from the Bear's Paw traffic lights...
I would like to see the council confirm that it will spend money on tackling these issues ahead of a 'blanket' approach to 20mph limits in Frodsham.  I challenged the Cabinet specifically on this point at the meeting.   If there is money to do everything - fine... but I fear we will be told, as I was by the highways department only a couple of weeks or so ago - that it is too expensive to put in a pavement on Manley Road.

Lynn and I looked at introducing 20mph limits in Frodsham 3-4 years ago and inspite of widespread publicity at the time, and us obtaining quotes for the work to be done there was little appetite for any change.  After all, as many of us know on many of our residential roads it is effectively impossible to travel above 20mph.  That said it is important in my view that we continue to encourage safe and respectful road usage by all.  A speed limit is only a limit - not a speed you must achieve.  

If you want to see Cllr Riley's and my speeches you can see them either on the CWaC website or here on the Frodsham Conservatives video channel.

Whilst it is fair to say that the plans are not fully developed yet, the Cabinet did publish a map of Frodsham showing where it believes 20mph limits could be introduced.  Anyone looking at the maps can see the anomalies and absurdities straight away.  Incidentally the 'yellow area' around the medical centre follows work that Lynn and I have done.

The police have also indicated that they are unlikely to enforce the lower limits if they are introduced.

But looking at the map ask yourself the question why, if a 20mph limit is to be introduced in residential areas why isn't it to be introduced on:
Sandfields
Churchfields
Froda Avenue
St Lawrence Road
Ashlands
Top Road
Newlands Close
Overton Drive
Hazelhurst Road
Dig Lane
Matty's Lane ... to name but a few.

Is there an opportunity to make Godscroft Lane 20mph to make cycling to Helsby High School more attractive... however making our roads more cyclist friendly isn't on the agenda either it would appear.  I fear this is typical Labour - good at telling people what they want and good at spending other people's money - but not so good at setting sensible priorities, or engaging in full meaningful consultation.