The agenda was stuffed full of 'motions' - each seeking a debate on one subject or another.
The first motion we debated was a technical change to the way in which planning applications relating to onshore gas and oil exploration and extraction would be handled - the effect of the motion, which was passed with all party support was to ensure that all such applications would be handled by the council's strategic planning committee and would not be capable of being determined by officers under delegated powers.
Now all of this was very far short of CWaC Labour's manifesto commitment on fracking on which it sought election in May 2015. They asserted:
'We will seek to put a moratorium on the extraction of shale gas methane in the Cheshire West and Chester area until the legitimate environmental and safety concerns of our residents can be addressed.'
The Borough Solicitor took the unusual step of giving us all legal advice about imposing any form of moratorium ahead of the debate. She informed us all publicly that:
'The Council has received clear legal advice that any motion which sought to introduce a moratorium on fracking/gas exploration or extraction in the borough or sought to introduce a negative presumption against such development would be unlawful as it would fetter the Council's discretion which it must apply when considering any future applications made to it as the Minerals Planning Authority.'
As several of us said in the debate - here was the Borough Solicitor pointing out that no council can impose a moratorium on any type of planning application. Now this isn't new law - in fact this is very 'old law' and anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of local government law and procedure would know this.
And of course this begs some interesting points:
- when CWaC Labour was drawing up its manifesto - did they realise they were putting forward an unworkable, unlawful policy?
If they did - then shame on them for deliberately seeking to mislead the electorate.
If they didn't - then shame on them for not knowing something so basic.
Many of us pushed the council last night to get on with developing a coherent policy on these matters because it is through strong policy that councils can best protect their residents. We've got part 2 of the local plan to draft - and this can and should contain the council's policy on fracking. Now with something so important you'd have thought that Labour would be getting on with this work. No, not a bit of it. The last LDF panel meeting was cancelled through an apparent 'lack of business!'
I was looking forward to challenging the chairman of the panel over this last night - and had a question tabled with this very much in mind - but the allotted 3 hours of the meeting came and went and most councillors (in fact all of Labour bar 1) - refused to extend the meeting to finish our business so my question never got asked. I did have a supplementary question planned for the Chairman of the LDF panel. It was to be:
'Having cancelled the last meeting for an apparent lack of business when will you finally be getting round to considering detailed policy on fracking and other similar controversial planning applications - as without such a detailed policy you are weakening the protection for residents and making it easier for developers?'
Now a lack of detailed policy on these things does in fact make it easier for developers - as they don't have to navigate it. So until Labour brings forward a comprehensive policy on fracking they are making it easier for developers.
As I've said many times over many years - I want the locals to be given the decisive say on applications such as these and we only get to that position if safety is properly and fully guaranteed. We need detailed, legal and fully reasoned policies in this area if we are to protect our communities as best we can. Lynn and my full speeches on fracking policy can be viewed on Vimeo - Frodsham Conservatives channel.
We've been denied real local decision making on controversial matters over the years such as:
- Labour's Ed Miliband granting exploration licences for shale gas in secret when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change;
- Labour Minister John Denham granting planning permission for the Ince Resource Recovery Park - and its two incinerators - which the majority of locals didn't want;
- Lib-Dem Secretary of State Ed Davey granting permission for the Frodsham windfarm - which the majority of locals didn't want.
I don't want this to happen again. Lynn and I will always put the Frodsham first.