As director of the Human Rights Consortium’s Extreme Energy Initiative, earlier this year Dr Damien short was asked by local resident’s groups to provide expert testimony to the Lancashire County Council Development Control Committee (DCC) on the human rights impacts of fracking – the controversial unconventional gas extraction technique.

I have been studying the social and environmental impacts of fracking for more than five years and have accumulated a considerable amount of impact data which suggests that the technology, and its associated infrastructure, poses a significant threat to environmental human rights such as to clean water. Moreover, the politics of fracking poses significant threats to civil and political rights, freedom of assembly and expression and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention (see my latest article here).

The invitation by the Lancashire residents came on the back of a co-authored report for the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation into the human rights impacts of fracking. And my evidence was requested due to two controversial potential fracking sites, New Road and Roseacre Wood, which were being proposed by fracking firm Caudrilla. 

Over the course of the two hearings the politics of fracking was plain to see, from the abundance of pro-fracking corporate rhetoric to the anti-fracking protests outside. What was more opaque, however, was the behind-the-scenes political intrigue that gave rise to the quite extraordinary scenes of disarray, confusion and contestation in the council chamber last week.

Indeed, while the Roseacre Wood application was fairly straightforwardly rejected on the grounds of adverse traffic impact, the New Road application was a different story. Following a motion to reject that application proposed by councillor Paul Hayhurst the DCC hearing was interrupted, apparently so that members could obtain ‘legal advice’ behind closed doors.

On resumption of the meeting the committee members were clearly agitated and concerned by what they had heard. Councillor Paul Hayhurst later revealed that council legal officers had put intense pressure on the committee to approve the application.

‘We were told we must vote for the application,’ he said. ‘If we didn’t we would be breaking the law and we would be deemed irresponsible members. If it went to appeal and we lost, costs would be awarded against the authority.’ Paul Hayhurst insisted the DCC publish the legal advice so that the public could see it.

The meeting was then adjourned until the 29 June. But when the legal advice was eventually published the following morning, it was toned down and expressly stated that rejecting the application would not break the law. Local groups and Friends of the Earth then frantically obtained their own legal advice, which assured councillors they were within their rights to reject the application if they felt there was sufficient evidence to do so – they were not bound by the advice of the planning officer or council’s QC. This alternate legal advice was emailed to councillors, followed up by hand delivered copies over the weekend. It was a monumental effort by concerned local citizens, the national anti-fracking movement and interested NGOs, which ultimately provided the beleaguered DCC with the confidence and evidence to reject the application.

Going forward, it is deeply concerning that austerity ravaged councils, such as LCC, will be under immense pressure to permit fracking operations, despite the considerable risks of environmental and social harms, because under recent government guidelines if they reject an application and lose an appeal they will have to pay costs.

On the other hand, if other councils, backed by committed and organised anti-fracking constituents, continue to object it may be that the prospects for a fledgling fracking industry in the UK are bleak. Based on the evidence I have seen over the years I certainly hope so.

In the midst of the New Road hearing on 26 June, Dr Short was interviewed by RTUK evening news. The webcast is available here.

Dr Damien Short is director of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) and a Reader in Human Rights, who has spent his entire professional career working in the field of human rights, both as a scholar and human rights advocate. He has researched and published extensively in the areas of indigenous peoples’ rights, genocide studies, reconciliation projects and environmental human rights, and is currently researching the human rights impacts of extreme energy processes (e.g. tar sands and fracking – see the designated website). Dr Short is a regular contributor to the United Nation’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an academic consultant for the Ethical Trade Task Force of the Soil Association, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Human Rights and the Journal of Human Rights in the Commonwealth.