Assessing local support for fracking – a problem in search of a solution.

Elizabeth Truss – UK Parliament official portraits 2017

Prime Minister, Liz Truss told Graham Liver 11 times in 4 ½ minutes that fracking will only be allowed where there is local support

“..what I want to be clear about is that we will only press ahead with fracking in areas where there is local community support for that, and the business Secretary has been very clear about that

Indeed Mr Rees-Mogg did tell Parliament

It will be important for the companies that wish to extract gas to ensure that there is local support, and to come up with packages that ensure that it is forthcoming.

However he does seem to think that local support is something that is malleable and can be purchased by the fracking companies.

As I have said, and as the Prime Minister has said, we will be looking to have the support of local communities. That is important. There will be a responsibility on companies, when they bring forward proposals, to work out how they can get that local consent. It seems to me pretty clear that that will involve giving money to people to encourage them

So Mr Rees-Mogg’s definition of local support might not be quite the same as that of most local people. After all compensation is not consent. We should also note that Truss’s “where there is local community support” is a carefully worded qualification. After all, one individual supporting fracking in the area actually fulfills that criterion.

Actually we can be pretty sure that Mr Rees-Mogg’s definition is pretty different to ours, because he was reported today (3rd October) to have said at a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference that:

What I think you need to get community consent is for the companies to go around door-to-door, as politicians do at elections, and ask people if they will consent in the community that would be affected. …if they get 50% plus one in favour then they should be able to go ahead.

I doubt many of us would see sending Cuadrilla’s 6 employees round the quarter of a million households in their PEDL area as a satisfactory methodology for gauging “community consent”, but then he is pretty desperate, and his knowledge of the issues involved is woefully lacking, so maybe this is to be expected?

Perhaps he has in mind some sort of stratified random sampling of households? But this would also be horribly complex, not least the question of exactly who in the sampled household gets asked. The owner(s)? All residents? All residents of voting age? Just the man of the house? (this is the Minister for the 18th Century after all), the cat?. And then there is the question of whether a household with 6 residents would get more weighting than a household with just 1?

He must also be aware that Mark Menzies MP specifically ruled out polling households and said the consent has to come from “50+1 % of the people, not households, you know, actual people

And herein lies another problem for the Minister for Not Understanding The Detail. He no doubt feels very smug for having repeated Mr Menzies’ “50% plus one in favour ” back at him, whilst implicitly endorsing some sort of sampling rather than a proper referendum on the issue.

Had he any awareness of how research actually works he would realise (as I’m sure Mr Menzies does) that the +1 there means he is effectively saying that the polling requires a 100% confidence level. Typical stratified random sampling in commercial market research works with a confidence level of 95% with a margin for error of +/- 5%. This would clearly not satisfy his own criterion here.

To be sure of a 99% confidence level +/- 0.1% (almost, but not quite, good enough to satisfy that “50% pus one in favour) from a population of 250,00 households you’d need to survey 217,348 of them. It would be quicker, more accurate, easier and cheaper to simply hold a referendum. Unless of course you aren’t really interested in the right answer?

He also fails to understand something rather basic about our democratic system. After the politicians have gone around knocking on doors and making their pitches, all of the people on the electoral roll get to have something called a vote. He seems to think that canvassing leads to consent which is a pretty bizarre idea.

Watching Mr Rees Mogg trying to understand how to measure local consent is like watching a cat staring at a calendar.

In fact even the idea that fracking has any meaningful level of support, local or national, with or without bribes is laughable.

Last week research from agency Diffusion made this quite clear.

In spite of the obvious lack of support that we have seen here, in the BEIS surveys and in informal local polling on social media, we still probably have to jump through the hoops, and what Rees-Mogg actually should mean is “where there is majority local support”, but this then raises the question of who has to give that support?

As we alluded to above, Fylde MP, Mark Menzies has been quite clear about what he believes saying in an interview on BBC Radio Lancashire :

whatever the local criteria (sic) is that is used , for me there needs to be a minimum of 50 + 1 percent of the people, not the households, you know actual people, you know, as on the electoral roll. There has to be a minimum of 50% of those people actively giving consent.

… but even he hasn’t been clear about how that population might be defined. He talked of the local borough council area or a distance from a proposed well, but this is still fraught with difficulty and inconsistency.

Are we to imagine that there might be multiple referendums going on in different places about whether fracking by a single company should be allowed? Might we not then end up with a patchwork of permission where it is allowed, say in Fylde but not in Wyre?

Taking Cuadrilla’s PEDL 165 as an example, it covers multiple local council areas (including Fylde, Wyre, Blackpool, Preston, South Ribble and West Lancashire) but some only partially. It also covers part but not all of the Lancashire County Council area. So, how on earth would it be possible to define who within those areas gets a say, or, in Mr Rees-Mogg’s, world gets bribed into accepting this industry?
Mr Menzies other suggestion was that people within a given distance from a well should be given a say, but how do you define what distance is fair or reasonable when the 2.9Ml quake at Preston New Road impacted properties as far away from Preston New Road as Cleveleys and Lytham St Annes?

Of course, the other issue with assessing support in an area defined by distance from a well pad is that even Cuadrilla can’t tell you today where they plan to site what might be up to 100 well pads, so we would need a rolling program of opinion surveys. This would result in the prospect of geographical patchworks of permissions, given at different times, that would be totally impracticable from everybody’s perspective, not least the industry’s.

Even assuming that we were able to satisfactorily, or even just arbitrarily, define who needs to be asked, the conditions for a fair referendum are notoriously difficult to satisfy. We only have to look back 6 years to remember why.

For an informed decision to be made we need a clear and simple process to be in place with a clearly defined but all embracing question to be answered, which leaves no wiggle room. As we have seen this will be challenging to say the least. Then we need complete and objective information to be available to help people reach a rational decision. I would go so far as to say that this is pretty much impossible in today’s febrile environment but assuming we give it a try then:

  • The general public must be provided with clear and honest information.
  • To achieve this there would probably have to be a series of open community engagement events, reported objectively by the media in which the pros and cons of fracking can be outlined factually by both sides.
  • The public must then be given time to reflect and do their own research before being asked to make a decision.
  • Before a referendum is held Government must have put in place any changes to legislation and planning conditions that might impact people’s opinions on the possible impacts of fracking on their community.
  • The industry must be open and honest about the scale of its plans including where possible the number and location types of well pads, number of wells, timescales etc.
  • Any offers of compensation being made by government or the industry must be clearly and definitively set out in advance and must be legally binding on them in the event that fracking were allowed to go ahead.

    Then there are the questions around what limits should be placed on any result to ensure that it qualifies as a valid expression of local opinion.

  • Should we insist on a quorum, a minimum percent of the population voting? For example in the Scottish Devolution Referendum 1979 a quorum of 40% of eligible voters was required. Would the result require a supermajority to ensure that any result really does have  support from significant proportion of voters? If so what should the threshold be? The Brexit referendum notoriously split the country almost 50/50 and the scars of that remain with us today. Perhaps a minimum of 60% majority combined with a 40% quorum might provide some certainty to the outcome?
  • Such combination of a quorum and supermajority might ensure that any result really does have a support from significant proportion of voters, but deciding on the detail will still be very tricky to manage.
  • Finally, would any result be advisory or binding and would there be any provision for revisiting the results after a period of time, say 5 years after they begin fracking, so that the real impacts or benefits could be re-assessed.

    However the process for assessing support of fracking is finally decided, it will certainly be divisive. Prejudices on both sides will be played on and the dividing lines will leave a running sore in our local community for years to come, regardless of outcome.

    Fracking is sadly notorious for this the world over.

    So, it seem that the industry and Mr Rees Mogg will have their work cut out to convince the local population that they really are committed to ensuring that fracking only goes ahead with community support.

    They may be hoping that financial inducements will save the day for them, but we don’t believe that people are blind to the potential impacts of fracking on local community amenity value, house prices and the environment, and doubt that the industry could afford to compensate local people fully for all of these even if they tried.

    We do though believe that if the Government even attempts to pretend that local support has been bought for 30 pieces of metaphorical silver, then they will bring a world of pain down upon their heads and will suffer for it electorally in every constituency, local and national where fracking is proposed.

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