Friday, 28 April 2017

Labour's hypocrisy, smears and fake news on fracking

On 26 April we were due to have a meeting of the CWaC Overview and Scrutiny Committee.  It had been convened as the Conservative Group had called-in for review the proposed Special Planning Document ('SPD') on unconventional oil and gas (the one that covers fracking).

We called the document in for review straight after the Labour Cabinet had wanted to adopt it on 15 March.  We would have been ready for the call-in meeting to take place any time.  It was the council that decided the meeting could wait until 26 April.  Our position is that the SPD contains errors that can be corrected and that more can be done to protect communities and the environment and give locals are more decisive say as to whether these developments should proceed.

In the meantime on 18 April the Prime Minister announced and Parliament later resolved that we are to have a general election.  This is important as there are strict rules on the use of public facilities for political purposes in the run up to an election.  The period where there are these restrictions is known as 'purdah.'  The purdah period for the general election started on 24 April.

The planned call-in meeting on the SPD could not go ahead because of the purdah rules.   The Conservative Group was there in force, ready for the meeting, and ready to say we support the SPD - but that it can be improved further, the errors in it corrected, as well as showing how the council can do so much more to take the views of local people fully into account when faced with  controversial development proposals that can affect communities for generations.

It was the council's lawyers, advising the Chairman of the meeting that called the meeting off because of the purdah rules.  If the council had arranged for this meeting to take place efficiently we could have had the meeting in March.  Subsequent releases from the Labour party have falsely claimed that we were running scared.   We were not and are not.  We wanted and want the meeting to take place.  As it couldn't take place as planned on 26 April we indicated we were quite happy for the meeting to be adjourned until after the general election.

As you could imagine in the hour or so before the meeting there were several conversations seeking to find a consensus about how we could deal with practical questions that would arise if the meeting was postponed.   Cllr Brian Clarke (Labour's cabinet member for this area) wanted the SPD to come into effect as soon as possible just in case a planning application came in, in the meantime.  It is a shame that he and his colleagues had waited more than month to convene the call-in meeting - however we recognised that there was a practical issue that we could help to resolve.

He gave me a commitment that the SPD document would be reviewed and the errors in it corrected if we agreed to withdraw the call-in.  I indicated we were prepared to do this providing we were given a proper opportunity to present our arguments and concerns as quickly as we could reasonably arrange after the general election.  I then received a personal undertaking from the Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee that we will be given an opportunity at a further scrutiny meeting in June.

I have subsequently been told the meeting will take place on 12 June.

Any meeting about fracking policy was bound to court political controversy.  This scrutiny meeting was to be webcast.  Any suggestion that the meeting didn't take place for any other reason is, in my view, disingenuous and no doubt aimed at hiding the hypocrisy at the heart of Labour's approach to fracking and fracking policy locally.  They said they were opposed to fracking, and stood for election in 2015 saying they would bring in a moratorium  to prevent fracking in the Borough - only to have the embarrassment of being told by the Borough Solicitor that it was unlawful for a council to have such a moratorium.  Any outright opposition to fracking would also prevent councillors from taking part in planning decisions through 'predetermination.'

I don't know whether CWaC Labour went into the last election deliberately trying to mislead the electorate, or whether they were just incompetent.  However you look at the situation their position was untenable as well as unlawful.

The SPD they have produced provides the detailed policy check list for anyone wishing to make a fracking application.  Labour are trying to hide this outrageous hypocrisy with 'fake news' and smears.  

It is CWaC Conservative policy that any planning policy on fracking must provide the greatest protection possible in law for communities, public health, wildlife and the wider environment.  This is why, as the SPD was being produced, it was Conservative amendments that increased and enhanced these protections.  

However, importantly, and it is the policy on which Lynn and  I were re-elected in May 2015 is that we will represent the views of our residents, and put the residents' interests first when dealing with any significant or controversial planning application such as one for fracking.  It is why we are committed to giving residents more of say such as through local referendums or polls and insisting that developers are open and transparent about their plans.  We've had far too many examples locally of residents wishes being ignored and I am determined to do what I can to redress that balance.

I have made formal complaints both about Labour's fake news statements and about the way in which the council handled the arrangements for the meeting and purdah.

It is going to take a very long time before I can ever trust the pronouncements of local Labour politicians ever again.