Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The fracking debate - addressing CWaC's working group

Last nights Lynn and I addressed CWaC's working group on novel hydrocarbon extraction.  That working group is taking evidence from anyone who has an interest in this particular debate.  There is another session on 5th March for anyone who hasn't had their say and wants to do so.

Lynn and I spoke combined for 15 minutes on the issue.  Unusually we had both written down our comments beforehand.  This debate is too important to deliver 'off the cuff' remarks.  The meeting was web-cast so you can see what we said too via the CWaC website.

Also, for the pair of us, and indeed anyone living along the Mersey Estuary, living with the petro-chemical industries is an everyday thing.  We also see the debate about fracking in the context of other developments - especially those near us which our community has vigorously opposed - but to no avail.  

So forgive the length of this blog entry - it contains the texts of both of speeches. Interestingly we prepared them separately - although as you'll see, whilst we use different language and different reference points - we are saying the same thing. 

If you don't want to read them all - just take away this central point:

For both of us - it is all about the community.  We want the community that may be affected by any controversial development to have the decisive say or a veto as to whether it can proceed or not.  It doesn't matter whether you from industry, government, a regulator or even a pro- or anti- all of us have become cynical, questioning and mistrustful of what we hear on this debate.  The cure for this - put the people in charge.  Make sure they are fully and fairly informed and let them have the decisive say.

So my speech first:

'CWaC needs detailed policies on all energy production – whether wind, solar, shale gas or anything else.  It is a shame that so few Councillors are prepared to speak on this issue.

There are five points I want to make – the first four can be made swiftly.

First – as a country we need to sort out our energy arrangements.  I do point the finger at the 1997-2010 Labour Government for not having got on with this.   The volatility in the world, whether between Russia & Ukraine and in the Middle East highlight the fragility of world energy resources and the risks to the UK going forward.  If we can be self-reliant in energy safely - then I’m sure we’d all agree that is the way to go.  It is right that we are examining these things.

That said and secondly – I am opposed to any development, any shale gas extraction, coal-bed methane extraction whatever that cannot be done safely and without threat of harm to the environment or to people.  If you can’t do it safely and without damaging the environment and crucially demonstrate that – then you can’t do it anywhere - and certainly not in the community I represent.  That is non-negotiable.

Thirdly – the UK has an excellent record on managing hazardous industries.  We have the COMAH Regulations – Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations - that regulate our most hazardous industries.  We have close on 1,000 of these sites in the country – many in the northwest of England – and a concentration of them around the Mersey Estuary. 

We make many things that could explode, that are toxic, that could poison or go bang in bad way.  We all need the products whether they be in the form of energy, medicines or even humble bleach and fertilisers.   We live with and manage these inherent risks day to day.

I see no reason why the comprehensive safety arrangements that COMAH brings should not be applied to any actually or potentially hazardous extractive techniques.  Getting the best regulatory protection for health, safety and the environment is surely the duty of all of us in a civilised society.    In fact if you are to demonstrate that you can carry out such extraction safely – then in my view it will take something akin to compliance with the COMAH regulations – to do this.  

Again if the developer is not prepared to go to these lengths – then forget it.

Fourthly – whatever anyone does should not threaten the life, livelihood or environment of anyone… and insurance or bonds should be in place to ensure that full compensation would be readily available if anything was to go wrong.  

No individual, no community should be exposed to risks that the market cannot or will not take or the government will not back.  Of course such backing should be readily available if a proper demonstrated safety case is made out and can be sustained.  If these arrangements are not in place – then again, forget it.

Now my main point.

Centre stage in my view should be democracy and local decision making.

I am opposed to any planning application no matter what its size or scale being determined by anyone other than local people.

We’ve had far too much of it:

We’ve had:
  • ·     A Labour Secretary of State – John Denham - imposing the Ince Resource Recovery Park on us – with its 2 incinerators and associated pressures on local infrastructure;
  • ·     A Lib-Dem Secretary of State imposing a windfarm on us – with turbines that will be prominently located and higher than Frodsham and Helsby hills;
  •       An adjacent Labour Council granting consent for Greater Manchester’s Waste to be incinerated at Ineos – the mother of all energy from waste incinerators.

In each case the locals I represent feel ignored by the planning processes that authorised these developments.

In my view this has got to stop – and stop now.

If big business and developers know that they do not have to engage with their local communities – it is the local communities that lose out.  It also breeds fear and distrust;

If regulators such as the HSE and EA know that the ultimate decision maker will be an inspector or a Secretary of State or themselves – they spend little effort in making sure communities are engaged and understand – and again it is the communities that lose out.  That also breeds fear and distrust.  I am very critical of the poor public engagement of our regulators.  I say it to their faces and I say it again tonight.

If big brother from Government or the Planning Inspectorate is able to pat us all on the head and say – we know best – you are having so and so development, like it or lump it – democracy is the loser and again it is the affected community that is the particular loser.  

That breeds resentment and corrodes democracy.

All of the systems and procedures we have seem designed to negate the need to engage with local communities effectively.  In my view that must be reversed and reversed urgently.

Whilst you are pondering that lets also think about Community Benefit funds for the moment.  We have the current nonsense that these funds are not seen as material planning considerations – and are therefore left out of consideration at the time planning applications are considered.

When it came to Ince Resource Recovery Park – the need for a community benefit fund was not even raised by the Labour Secretary of State or indeed the local Labour Councillors.  

Were it not for my lobbying and that of Cllr Riley I doubt that Peel would have offered such a fund with that development.  That offer was made in public at the last Ince Resource Recovery Park meeting.

We still do not know what size fund will be provided for that development or for indeed for Peel’s windfarm and works are shortly to commence.  That in my view is simply ridiculous.

In my view what we need for developments of this nature is open honest engagement with the local community – with the local community properly engaged and informed with all relevant information – and for the locals to have the final say, or an effective veto on these sorts of developments.

This sort of approach would make industry engage with their neighbouring communities; it would make the regulators not only do their job in terms of assessing whether something was safe or not – but also to go the extra mile and ensure that the community knew the whats, the whys and the wherefores.

It would also mean that the community could perform its own cost benefit analysis and determine whether what was on offer was worth it.

And for those who say that cannot be done – look at the careful work of the HFEA on mitochondrial DNA – and how Parliament – on a free vote was prepared to back such novel and ground breaking proposals for three parent children. 

I trust my community to be able to reach such informed decisions too when properly informed and independently advised.

Industry on the Mersey Estuary is energy hungry.  The industry there is strategically important for the UK as a whole as well as for us locally.  We want the skilled work.  We need their products.

We want the UK to have a successful economy – It is only with a successful economy that we as a nation can provide the services we want to our people at a standard we want.  But it isn’t at any price.  Nor should it be in the teeth of pre-dominant local opposition.  

If the development proposed is genuinely safe, and can be managed appropriately – explain that to the locals and get their consent.  Lets have real engagement, and real consent real local democracy.

Lets also make sure that any benefits genuinely support and transform the local communities – and don’t just disappear into general funds.  At a stroke you would transform the relationship between local industries and their neighbouring communities. 

You wouldn’t have the nonsense of Ineos providing funds to Halton Council to disburse based on the tonnage of fuel burnt – and ignoring those of us to the south who happen to live the other side of a local boundary – as well as potentially those in Halton who live close by.

You wouldn’t have the nonsense of Ineos refusing to part fund air monitoring stations in Frodsham and elsewhere as has indeed has happened.

Well Ineos - we put an air monitoring station in Frodsham in any event to make sure we had base line data as to whether there was or is any adverse to air quality as a consequence of your incinerator.  We’ve also done it to make sure we had the data ahead of anything Peel might do at Ince too.

I have to praise Peel at this point – they got it… they funded the independent advice that led to air monitoring station being brought to Frodsham.  They saw the need, once we had explained it to them… that the locals needed independent advice to understand air quality issues on the Estuary.  I am pressing them to continue with quality community engagement – don’t just do things to us – take us on the journey with you.  Make sure we are separately and independently informed and advised.

And the same should be the case, in my view on any development of this sort of controversy.  Any of us, whether a Councillor or a member of the public should be able to say ‘If I’m going to have to live with this and the consequences of it, then I want a decisive say in whether it goes ahead or not.’

We had a well-attended debate in Frodsham recently on fracking.  The audience was divided roughly in thirds.  A third opposed, a third in favour and a third who were not sure.  

However there was an overwhelming majority in favour of giving the decisive say on such developments to the local community itself. 

I stand here to say that to you.  In any policy consideration for these sorts of novel developments – put the community first.  Given them the effective decision making power or as an alternative an effective veto.

A policy to the effect that CWaC cannot or will not support a development proposal that does not enjoy significant and sustained community support would send a strong signal to all involved. 

We should no longer be prepared to have things done to us without community consent.

So in conclusion – I believe we need detailed policies in this area.  Policies that safeguard the environment and human health – and crucially policies that put community consent front and centre.

If you can’t bring the community along with you – forget it.

And now Lynn's

This whole debate boils down to one single word, one simple human response and emotion. It isn’t fracking/engagement/politics or policy – its trust.

Sadly these days, we are all inherently distrustful. When it comes to big business/regulators/government we expect the worst and MORI research tells us we don’t believe the data.

Big Business with its Corporate Social Responsibility mantra is seen as PR spin and too many people never know about the great things that happen as a result of CSR at work in their community. The Regulators who were created to provide safeguards to the environment and public reassurance are these days seen as collaborators. Probably all of us have an opinion as to how this sorry situation has come about, but ‘they’ are all too distant from ‘us’.

The planning system is equally tarnished and feels like its not really working for anyone. Those who want to develop face years of costly process. Those who genuinely want a debate and some say about what takes place in their backyard don’t feel like they are listened to.

The net result is that we talk about things like fracking in very human terms and this drives how we behave. How often do we hear people saying, ” I don’t like this/ I don’t believe them/ it feels wrong/ I don’t want this?” And yet successive Governments keep trying square how people feel and behave with a system that is process orientated and reinforces the distrust. Einstein said that  ‘insanity’ should be defined as doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.  The UKOGG Community Charter might be a step in the right direction but it still feels like someone else’s conversation and is likely to be viewed with the prevailing skepticism. So isn’t it time that we moved ‘people’ up the hierarchy to be at least peers with policy and process?

We could talk for ever on this, but need to focus on what we can do to start to restore trust so that we can have the debate that’s needed but one that gives everyone an equal chance to participate. It’s going to require courage; Councillors have to be brave enough to lead; Business has to show the courage of its convictions, get out from hiding behind Regulation and get close to communities; and people have to be brave enough to get involved and listen as well as talk.

This isn’t going to happen overnight and is going to need some honest brokers to help us along the way. So let’s talk about Frodsham.

We know what it feels like to have unwanted development imposed upon us by distant institutions. Under the previous Government we saw ill-conceived regional policy used to “justify” the Ince Resource Recovery Park, The Frodsham Wind Farm and the new incinerators at Ineos burning Manchester’s waste. Our community stepped up, fought hard and now feel thoroughly done to.

But once the decisions were made, we determined that the fight didn’t end there and that the real slog of convincing the developer to honour their obligations in ways that worked best for Frodsham was just starting.  Peel eventually came to understand what we had to say and we likewise listened to their commercial issues. When those cogs aligned, we were able to broker an A56 air quality initiative that brought community leaders together with independent experts that were funded by the RRP. Frodsham and Helsby is an amazing community with some seriously clever people, many of whom who have helped big business make billions. Working together has made the community a research partner, the data is published and is providing for anyone to see and use. It also flags up that its traffic not industry that’s our immediate problem, but we have the baseline data in place before any of the incinerators come online.

We’re talking about this ( thro blogs and newsletters and Cllr Dawson appearing on Radio4)  and so are lots of people. Other groups are playing their part, wanting to bring more people into the debate. Frodsham Transition is a case in part and having already hosted one debate, they are inviting you to attend the Community Centre for an energy debate with Profs Joe Howe & Roy Alexander and a Peel Energy Rep. The fact that this isn’t the Council’s debate or a developers debate is bringing a new audience into the mix and we’d love to see there.

In the US they’re going further to bridge the gap and build the trust. In areas that are already fracked, scientists are working with communities to fit people out with wrist monitors capable of monitoring 1,000 chemicals in the air. It’s this sort of initiative that takes the industry-interest out of the mix and makes a direct connection between the science and the communities that are breathing the air and drinking the water. It’s how people can hold industry to account, start learning together and build up to a more trusting relationship with those who are to be our neighbours for decades. Big Biz has to be brave enough to fund this and then trust us to get on with it.

When it comes to fracking, there will always be polarized opinion and those ‘for’ and ‘against’ will slug it out on facts and statistics – that people don’t believe anyway! But the vast majority of people just don’t know what to think and who to believe. The last energy debate in Frodsham told us this and the straw poll saw a room full of folk roughly divided into thirds of ‘supporter’, ‘objectors’ and ‘don’t knows’. So we have to do something different to bring everyone into the debate. This Government has introduced the concept of the community referendum in the Neighbourhood Planning process, allowing communities greater control over what takes place in their backyard. We want to see this extended to issues like this. We believe that this community-centered approach to fracking provides the incentive for people to take a more active interest and it would almost guarantee different behaviour from companies wishing to test drill but needing our buy-in to do so.

We want industry to stop being the perpetrators and step-up to be participators with their local communities. Industry has become separated from the very communities on which they depend and hides from local people behind a process. If  techniques are safe, stop telling us and work with us to prove it.    Real engagement and mutually supportive neighbourliness all round is what is required. It all comes down to building trust and you can only do that at a very personal and local level.