Thursday, 29 May 2014

The renewables and fracking debate Forest Hills last night

The Frodsham and Kingsley Transition Initiative debate at Forest Hills was interesting and thought provoking.  Professors Eirk Bichard from Salford University and Professor Peter Styles from Keele University led the debate on whether fracking was necessary or desirable.  Each took a different side in the argument - however for me, what I found particularly interesting was where they agreed.

Both looked on the debate from the standpoint of climate change and the need to take carbon out of our energy production.  However there is a problem - the apparent lack of a coherent energy production policy from Government and the long lead in time to commission new power plants.  This is a criticism levied both at the present Government and, the previous Blair/Brown Government.

Both Professors agreed that, for energy production, we need a mixed approach to production.  Both agreed that the future, probably post 2030, would see energy production primarily made up of nuclear power and renewables. They also agreed that energy efficiency was also key - we can all do a lot more to reduce our energy usage.

Professor Bichard pointed out how inefficient our housing stock is when it comes to energy usage or wastage and that more could be done to promote more renewables, such as hydro, solar or tidal.

The difference between the Professors came when dealing with the position between now and say 2030.  How do we 'de-carbonise' our energy production?  Erik Bichard believes we can do enough though energy reduction and promoting more renewables to avoid having to exploit any shale gas reserves.  Peter Styles sees shale gas extraction 'fracking' as the least worst solution to bridge our energy gap whilst also seeking to promote energy efficiency and renewables.

In the debate Prof Styles pointed to some of the effects of the American's massive exploitation of shale gas production.  The American's costs of production and energy have fallen greatly.  They now have a significant advantage over Europe when it comes to manufacturing.  One of the unexpected consequences of American shale gas is the increased burning of cheap American coal in Europe - and thereby causing increased CO2 emissions which further risks climate change.  American coal has become cheap because of the abundance of shale gas.

He also hinted at the economic consequences for the UK of being overly reliant on Russian, Norwegian or Qatari supplies of Liquefied Natural Gas.  A state which he believes we are heading to.

Professor Styles pointed out that there have been over 200 'fracks' in the UK since the late 1950s or early 1960s.  He pointed out that these fracks had taken place without incident.

When it came to whether the UK will seek to exploit its shale resources Professor Styles was less sure.  He described a 'triangular' position which has yet to be completed:

  • are their shale gas resources;
  • can they be exploited economically; and
  • is their public consent for that to occur?
Frodsham Transition Initiative, who organised the debate, then brought in 5 other speakers.  I went fifth! The other four speakers talked briefly about various energy saving approaches or energy production through renewables.  This raised an interesting question about whether biomass burning was actually a more or less sustainable means of energy production.

I spoke briefly about the national consensus between Labour and the Conservatives on exploiting shale gas if it is safe to do so and there is community acceptance.  I explained how I want to go further and ensure real community engagement.  I pointed out, what virtually everyone in the room already appreciated, that where we sat in Frodsham we had had plenty of controversial developments 'done' to us, rather than with us.  The well known examples include:
  • Peel's windfarm;
  • Peel's Ince Resource Recovery Park - and its permission for two incinerators; and
  • the burning of Greater Manchester's waste at Ineos.
I argued that, that position must come to an end.  

I pointed out that we would not be interested in shale gas exploitation unless it could be done safely - and I mean really safely and that there was community agreement that it should happen.

We've already had coal bed methane explorations at Ince where coal bed and shale gas was discovered.  At some point those of us around the estuary may have to face a planning application for it to be exploited.  I want the community as a whole to be given the means to decide controversial planning applications in future either through deciding the applications in a vote or perhaps through a local referendum on a neighbourhood plan.  There was widespread agreement with that sort of approach.  I pointed out it would also force industry and our regulators to do far more to engage with local communities.  

I also want independent expert advice for local communities about these sort of controversial developments. I explained how Cllr Riley and I had been able to persuade Peel to do that with regard to air quality ahead of their Ince Waste Recovery park being built - and that this had shown that we have air quality issues but these were associated with cars and lorries on the M56 and A56.

At the end of the debate the Chairman sought to discover from the room what they thought.

From where I sat there appeared to be a consensus in the room that the UK needed to:
  • do more on energy efficiency; and
  • do more to promote non-carbon using energy production such as nuclear and renewables.

It also looked like that most of the people in the room supported shale gas extraction - although there was also a significant number who were opposed to it.

After the debate we had a number of break out sessions.  Amongst the people I spoke with were a number from Halton and Upton.  The Halton residents were particularly critical of the lack of engagement they perceived from their council and their industry.  They were also critical of politicians who fail to show leadership for their communities about these issues.  I agreed with them!  The residents from Upton raised the testing that is going on there and what they saw as the lack of information given to them about the present exploration.  I tried to encourage one of them to stand for Upton Parish Council!

I pointed out to them all how few Councillors had bothered to engage in CWaC's Local Development Plan consultations - and how it appears that only Cllr Lynn Riley and I were the only ones to engage regarding the emerging policies in the plan regarding 'novel hydrocarbon' extraction.  Both of us are arguing for much stronger community engagement and involvement in any decision making.

As part two of the plan with its detailed policies is emerging please get involved with suggesting policies!

A big thank you to Frodsham Transition Initiative.  A well organised and thought provoking event.  I learnt much from it and I'm sure others did too.  I will keep arguing for Frodsham, and indeed any community to be given the means to decide any controversial application.  This is too important a matter to be decided by one or two people whether from Government or the Planning Inspectorate.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Are you pro or anti fracking? Come to the debate Forest Hills Frodsham tonight

'Are you pro or anti- fracking?' is one of those questions that journalists and campaigners use to try and divide people and politicians at the moment.  I was posed a very similar question by David Holmes of the Chronicle earlier this afternoon.

The answer I gave him, is the same response I will give tonight at the debate being held by Frodsham and Kingsely Transition Initiatives at Forest Hills, Frodsham.

'I am neither pro nor anti fracking - I am pragmatist on the side of my community.'

It is both Conservative and Labour Party policy to seek to exploit shale gas and shale oil reserves if at all possible.  Both parties also accept, as indeed does industry and the regulators, that if fracking is to take place it can only happen if it can be done safely - without harm to human health, wildlife and the environment and if there is significant community consent.

For my part I go further.

Without safety and proper protection for human health, wildlife and the environment during all stages of the proposed operation - forget it.  I'm not interested and I would oppose any development proposals where safety at all levels wasn't properly guaranteed.

Secondly, and crucially of all - forget fracking unless there is significant community consent - perhaps demonstrated through a local referendum on a neighbourhood plan or if the community itself could decide whether or not to grant planning permission.

When weighing up the arguments on fracking one has to think of the local jobs and industry tied up with the petrochemical industry in our part of the world and their need for cheaper energy.  Will the UK petrochemical industry survive the onslaught of cheap US shale gas production over the next 10 years?  Can we strike the right balance though?

No community wants to be the 'guinea pig' nor indeed in my view to the people who take these decisions really think about the locals.

But the track record doesn't look good...

Think about all the recent major decisions in and around the Mersey Estuary where local opinion has been effectively ignored eg.-

  • Ince Resource Recovery Park - with its two incinerators given planning consent by a Labour Secretary of State;
  • Frodsham Marshes Windfarm - given planning consent by a Lib-Dem Secretary of State;
  • The incinerator at Ineos to burn Greater Manchester's Waste - granted consent by Halton Borough Council
If any of us had been given a real influence on the decision making I'm sure most of us would have said 'No' to each of these development proposals.  However if industry and the regulators were compelled to explain their cases to us all who knows what the answers would be.  That's why I'm arguing for a much greater say for local communities as a whole.  For something to be safe it must be demonstrably safe and explained in a way that everyone can understand - and everyone can feel part of the decision making process. 

I think industry has become separated from the local communities on which they depend.  Also I think our regulators are no longer trusted.  These issues also form part of the underlying community concerns.

So I'm not a cheerleader for fracking.  I can see the benefits, but I can also see the risks and legitimate concerns. I am a cheerleader for my community, for a community that wants and needs cheaper energy and good jobs - but that is not at any price.  If it can't be done safely - forget it.  If you can't get community support - forget it.

I'm looking forward to a lively debate tonight.  

Monday, 19 May 2014

Driving the future - The Tesla Model S Electric Car comes to Frodsham

Graham Evans MP was invited to test drive the new Tesla Model S electric car and I was lucky enough to tag along and have a go too as the starting point was Forrest Hills.  We were shown around the car by Tesla UK's Stephen Davis.

I'm eager to be an early adopter of a practical electric car - I think that's what we'll all be driving in around 10-15 years time. I've test driven them in the past but haven't found anything yet that I want to invest in.  My experience yesterday made me wonder whether we are on the cusp of a break through.

The Model S has everything you'd expect of an 'executive' type car.  As something of a geek I loved the huge 'glass cockpit' display on the centre console and the 'touch screen' approach.  When you got behind the wheel there you realised you were driving something that could easily compete with established marques like Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW.  Steve explained that this particular model had a range in excess of 250 miles - and could readily be re-charged in an evening.

Tesla Model S at Forrest Hills, Frodsham
The car handled brilliantly - and I could definitely see me enjoying the slightly different experience of driving an electric motored car.  First the torque.  We popped onto the Mile Straight and Steve encouraged me to blip the accelerator.  The acceleration was impressively rapid.  Then there are the regenerative brakes which re-charge the batteries as you decelerate.  It is an interesting experience to back-off on the accelerator - the regeneration kicks in slowing the car.  In fact other than coming to a stop to swap drivers I don't think I touched the foot brake at all.  Everything you needed to do in terms of accelerating or slowing down could be done from the accelerator pedal.  As something of a geek I loved driving to the gauges - seeking to maximise speed whilst minimising the draw from the batteries, or conversely enjoying making progress whilst seeing the batteries regenerate.

The particular car we were driving was a left hand drive Dutch registered model.  If you want one to drive here they are making right hand drive models.

As you could well imagine I encouraged Steve to open a Tesla dealership in Frodsham!

Graham Evans MP test driving the Tesla Model S
 A big thank-you to Stephen Davis for letting us have a go and giving us the guided tour of the car. Elon Musk one of Tesla's (and PayPal) founders is something of a personal hero for me - especially with his involvement in SpaceX... Now that is a test drive I'd also love to try too!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Manor House School's Frodsham Show

Its been a glorious day today - an ideal day for Manor House School's Frodsham Show.  It was wonderful to see so many people enjoy themselves at the school and especially to see so many people who weren't directly connected to it either such was the draw of the event.  A big thanks and 'congratulations' to all at the Manor House PTA for putting on a great show.

I think it was also a great idea to get our local MP Graham Evans to open the show and to have local businesses in the shape of Taylor's Opticians and our Barclays Bank team sponsor the event.
Saying thank- you to Victoria from Taylor's Opticians

The show had everything you'd expect - lots of competitions, stalls, food and fun.  
I was asked to judge the Junk sculptures.

  It was fun to watch our own 'Master Baker' Rob Crowther judge the bread and cakes competition.  I've never seen bread and cakes cut with such precision and tasted by an expert before!

As some of you may know Alan Carter had set me up for a dunking.  I was delighted to see the head teacher Mr Devereux-Roberts was dunked first.  It was wonderful seeing so many youngsters eager to soak him!  That's the sort of head I would have liked to have had!

I was also pleased that when it came to drawing the crowds to pay £1 for the chance of dunking it was the head that drew bigger crowds than me!

It was a hot day - but the water was cold.

Graham Evans MP, Alan Carter - and me, soaked!

My dear colleague Cllr Lynn Riley enjoyed soaking me!  I'll get my revenge one day!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Shale Gas Conference - NEC, Birmingham

I attended day one of the Shale Gas conference at the NEC in Birmingham yesterday.  The conference brought together industry representatives and consultants, government, local government, political parties Greenpeace,regulators and other interested parties to discuss this potentially controversial topic.

I had been asked by the conference organisers to chair two round table discussions about the issues surrounding shale gas exploration in Cheshire.  Other CWaC Cllr colleagues also attended as delegates.

I was particularly pleased to see the near unanimous consensus amongst all those participating in the conference that:
  • shale gas exploitation should not take place unless it can be done safely - in other words without harm to human health, wildlife or the environment; 
  • irrespective of the legal permitting regimes and the wider law the public as a whole need to be convinced that shale gas can be explored and exploited safely before it can, if ever move forward; and
  • industry as a whole must do a great deal more to be good neighbours with their communities.
There was a cross political party consensus too that if shale gas could be explored and exploited safely then, the many benefits for the UK could include greater energy independence and security as well as more certainty in energy pricing going forward.  Dan Byles MP (Con) and  Tom Greatrex (Lab) were effectively saying the same things in their respective contributions.

One of the themes discussed was the need for UK industry to have access to reliable cheaper energy.  This is needed if the UK petrochemical industry is to be able to compete with the US on a more level playing field.  Without exaggeration the cheap energy prices that the US petrochemical industry now has through its shale gas exploitation is already threatening the very existence of UK manufacturers and UK jobs on which we all depend.

My round table discussions about Cheshire brought together representatives of most of the major industry players in 'our back yard.'  In addition we were joined by the HSE and the Environment Agency, and the Government departments of BIZ and DECC.

I outlined the public and political landscape in Cheshire as a whole and CWaC in particular.  At CWaC we have established a cross party working group to explore the issues on shale gas exploration.  We have asked everyone with a point of view who wants to help shape policy within CWaC to come forward and debate the issues.  I am delighted that everyone who came to the Cheshire discussion has agreed to participate and present evidence in the local policy debate we are to have at CWaC.  That means the industry leaders will come, Government Departments, Regulators, Greenpeace, existing representatives of the petro-chemical industry will come to join the locals some of whom are for, and some of whom are against shale gas exploration. 

I outlined the intrinsic distrust many people feel with everyone associated with shale gas exploration - this includes distrust of our regulators.  I pointed out the need to ensure that, if local communities are ever to understand or accept shale gas exploration, that they have access to independent non-biased expertise to help them understand the issues and risks at hand.  We've already seen the benefits of this approach locally over air monitoring.  

I even went so far as to suggest as an idea that the granting or otherwise of planning permission for a shale gas development could be determined by the local community itself as a means to ensure widespread community support as a pre-condition.  Such an approach would compel anyone promoting a scheme to put the effort in to ensure that the surrounding local community was properly informed and was in a position with the help of experts, regulators, industry and those opposing any scheme to balance up all the issues.  The public are quick to 'suss out' charlatans - so this would ensure that any community engagement was meaningful.

Another way of dealing with this would be for those promoting a local scheme to assist the local community prepare its neighbourhood plan.  Don't forget a neighbourhood plan can only come into force after a local referendum.  Again this would focus the minds of the promoter into ensuring that the local community buy into what is proposed.

Lets face it the prize for the UK in being able to exploit our own seemingly abundant shale gas resources means all of us must properly explore the arguments both for and against.  But the pre-condition, or as one delegate put it to me yesterday, the 'table stake' is safety.  That is non-negotiable.

So before anyone thinks I'm in some way a cheer leader for the shale gas exploration - I'm not.  I try to act as a champion of my local community and put their interests first.  Accidents of geography, geology and the many thousands of local jobs that depend on the petrochemical industry in our corner of Cheshire mean we must explore the issues and come to proper balanced view.  Lets have that reasoned debate with each other - ideally in a respectful non-intimidatory way.

So my current starting point is: (as my knowledge and appreciation of the issues changes so may my view) 

'If there is to be exploration and exploitation of shale gas is has to be done and demonstrably be done safely - and without real risk or demonstrable harm to human health, wildlife and the natural environment.  If it is to be done it must be done in a well-managed, monitored way.  It must be policed, conditioned and regulated to ensure that there is a very high level of protection.  This must be done in an open and transparent way.  

All material information must be shared with the local community both with regard to what is planned and with regard to what is happening.  Independent expert advice must be provided to the local community to help it understand the issues before permission is granted and during all phases of the development.  

There must be proper contingency planning to mitigate against forseeable risks and straight forward compensation arrangements if damage arises.  There must also be the opportunity for the potential host- community to debate and consider all the issues before any scheme is granted permission.  There should be community agreement and acquiescence with what is proposed and significant sharing of the benefits of such a scheme with the local community hosting it.' 

If this can't be done or you are not willing to do it - then don't do it and certainly not in our corner of Cheshire.  

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Emerging Local Plan - and who really cares about things around here

Today was an important day for all of us in Frodsham, and in fact for everyone in Cheshire West and Chester.  Today was the last day on which those who had already commented on Part 1 of the Emerging Local Development Plan could submit a proof of evidence and have it considered at next months Examination in Public.

This Emerging Local Development Plan is of vital importance to all of us living in the Borough as it will be the yardstick against which planning applications will be measured up until 2030.  We are at the strategic policy stage or Part 1.  Part 2, and the specific planning policies will follow.

Lynn and I have commented on all stages of the plan so far and today submitted a 64 page joint proof confirming our previous comments and also drawing to the Inspectors attention the Frodsham Consultation.  We've both said that when we get round to the examination hearings we will raise the consultation findings - and that depending what the residents of Frodsham have said we may alter what we've said so far to reflect strong community sentiments - if it differs what we've said.  The first findings will only emerge at the Annual Town Meeting in a week's time.

Now a little while ago I searched the CWaC Consultation Portal to see who has said what about the Emerging Local Plan.  I was and am particularly interested in what CWaC Councillors, FTC Councillors and other noteworthy locals have said.  Lets not forget this is the most important development plan for our generation.

On CWaC there are 75 Councillors - 42 Conservative, 32 Labour and 1 LibDem.
At the previous 'preferred policy stage':

  •  42% or 18 of the Conservative Councillors had participated;
  • 18.75% or 6 of the Labour Councillors had participated; and
  • 0% or 0 of the LibDem(s) had commented.
Those the commented on the specific policies that will be examined at the Examination in Public:
  • 26% or 11 of the Conservative Councillors had participated;
  • 9.375% or 3 of the Labour Councillors had participated; and
  • 0% or 0 LibDem(s) had commented.
Each consultee could comment on the specific emerging policies.  Each response can be viewed on the Consultation Portal and that is what I searched for and looked at today.  In total all of the Councillors combined made 56 separate responses.  These were divided as follows:
  • 95% or 53 responses were submitted by Conservative Councillors
  • 5% or 3 response were submitted by Labour Councillors
Now there clearly is something special in the water around here as Lynn and I were responsible for 21 or 37.5% of all Councillor responses.  

You've got to bear in mind that these policies relate to many things - housing, employment, transport, household waste recycling centres, wind farms, fracking etc.  

I then looked at the FTC Cllrs.  Leaving aside Lynn and me only Cllrs Warren and Bondi have participated at any stage of this emerging local plan.  A quick glance for the local 'big mouths' revealed an absence of comment or representation from them too.

So who really cares... you decide...