In 2006, a fresh-faced David Cameron – newly elected Leader of the Conservative Party – travelled to a remote Norwegian glacier, hugged huskies for the cameras and drove dog sledges through the snow.
A few months later, the party unveiled a new logo, prominently featuring a scribbled green tree; a symbol of a modern Conservative Party focused on renewable energy.
Since then, under the pressure of the political reality of government, the party’s environmental and energy policy has changed dramatically.
The green tree has turned blue, on-shore wind farms have essentially been banned and major renewable subsidies have been scrapped.
Amber Rudd, Secretary of State of DECC, has said she wants to see a “solar revolution” in the UK, but has come out strongly against ground-mounted solar farms. The Conservatives have been pursuing nuclear power since 2010, yet plans for Hinkley Point remain under intense scrutiny. The Government is going “all out for shale”, but no one is fracking.
The Lib Dems ruled the roost over DECC during the last parliament, a situation which suited both Coalition partners. But now, with the Conservatives back in charge, Amber Rudd – and the increasingly influential Greg Clark, Secretary of State for DCLG – has the chance to properly define the UK’s energy priorities.
Measures announced today by Rudd and Clark have given a massive boost to the shale industry by introducing a number of pro-fracking policies, including allowing the Government to potentially call in shale planning applications on a case-by-case basis.
Burdened with the weight of the decision in the Fylde, Lancashire County Council took 15 months to reach a verdict on Cuadrilla’ s application. New measures announced today mean that any shale application which goes beyond the Government’s 16 week target could be decided by the Communities Secretary.
Finally, a policy ensuring that planning ‘call ins’ and appeals involving shale applications are prioritised by the Planning Inspectorate is a clear indication the Government wants to kick start the fracking industry, which has until now been delayed by the planning system that the Government empowered during the last parliament.
Localism made communities stronger, particularly in the planning sector, and the decision about whether to frack or not has, until today, been down to individual local authorities.
This has placed councillors in an impossibly difficult situation, weighing up the local economic advantages fracking could bring on the one hand, and the potential environmental impacts it could have on the other. This is against a backdrop of fierce local opposition and the fear of an expensive appeal process.
Today’s announcement undoubtedly blunts the power local authorities have to stop fracking in their areas, and brings power back to central government. The Government will need to defend themselves against accusations that the move is ‘anti-Localism’.
While this will be seen as an important step to kick-start the industry, communities’ abilities to affect and decide decisions on fracking will undoubtedly be weakened.
This will lead to increased criticism from opponents of fracking who will argue that these new measures make it easy to ignore local people’s views. As a result, increased local engagement by operators will be essential to ensure community support for projects that will increase the chances of success for these and future sites.
Measurement and evaluation