Friday, March 15, 2019

News: Planning board votes on stance ahead of INEOS public inquiry

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The planning board at Rotherham Council has voted on officer's recommendations to withdraw objections on highways grounds from INEOS' Woodsetts appeal process "in light of the lack of evidence."

Rothbiz revealed last week that officers believed that it could not fight its refusal of the plans by the oil and gas exploration and production business for a test drilling well on a Greenbelt site.

The plans were recommended for approval, having previously been refused on ecological grounds and on highway safety. The planning board went against officer's recommendations and refused the plans based on highway grounds and noise and general disturbance. Having been successful at the inquiry over its Harthill application, INEOS appealed against the Woodsetts decision.

Chris Wilkins, development manager at Rotherham Council, explained at a board meeting this week: "Following the refusal of the planning application the Transportation Unit have reviewed the information raised by Members in relation to safety concerns and, while recognising that these concerns are valid, do not consider that they would warrant a refusal of planning permission for the proposed development.

"For reasons of transparency and to allow an independent review of this assessment the Highway Authority [the Council] has then attempted to commission consultants who could re-assess the information and represent the Council's case at the forthcoming Public Inquiry.

"Responses were received from five separate consultants who had reviewed the information but were unable to provide a robust case to support the reason for refusal. One further consultant has indicated that they would be prepared to provide expert evidence in support of the highways reason for refusal but the information provided is not considered to be sufficiently robust to defend the decision to refuse the application on the highways grounds."

Costs to the Council and legal advice also points to the highway grounds refusal being withdrawn and that the decision is seen as "pragmatic and appropriate."

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The noise and general disturbance reason will still be defended at the appeal by the Council, especially in relation to the HGVs used in developing the site. Woodsetts Against Fracking (WAF) have gained "Rule 6" status, which means that they will have equal standing to the Council and INEOS at the public inquiry and can still raise objections on highways and other grounds.

Richard Scholey, of WAF also spoke at the meeting and said that members voting to refuse planning permission in September was "a fine example of the planning system working as it was intended as planning officers should not have the final say on planning decisions." He added that nothing had changed since members voted for refusal.

The campaigner also accused the Council of self-protectionism and a lack of transparency.

Ian Ferguson, senior highway development control officer at Rotherham Council, told the board that he feels that the highways reasons for refusal would be "very difficult to defend" at an appeal.

Planning board member Cllr. Jenny Whysall, said: "At the meeting where we refused this application, I can't actually see any reason to change the views that we put forward then. And I'm not saying this lightly - I've thought long and hard about this - I think we have to look at what we do, and are, as a planning board because it seems to suggest to me that we are superfluous if we accept that officers are always right. And I say that with admiration for our team of officers but I think on this one, we have a moral obligation.

"We have every right to disagree and it's no reflection on anyone when we do that. We are not professional planners but we do know the places that we represent."

Fellow planning board member Cllr. John Williams: "We have got to have the confidence as decision makers that the Council has got a good chance of winning that appeal because to do otherwise, I think, is irresponsible. Cllr. Whysall talked about a moral responsibility but we also have a legal responsibility. We have to make good, responsible, sound and legal decisions."

He added that the consultants not being able to provide a robust case showed that there was a strong reason to remove the reasons for refusal.

The planning board voted to approve the recommendation to remove the highways grounds from the appeal objections.

INEOS said in a statement: "This has been a waste of time and money for everyone involved and we are disappointed that this objection was mounted in the first place. The Council has now acknowledged that defending a Planning Enquiry on the grounds it presented was a futile exercise that would incur significant cost and that dropping it was pragmatic and appropriate. We regret that this outbreak of common sense didn't occur earlier and that the Council's frivolous attitude to public money still continues in the form of their other objections to the scheme."

Images: INEOS

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