Ministers deliberately delayed a controversial fracking report it was being forced to publish until after crucial council decisions on planning permission, according to newly revealed documents.
The documents also show ministers acknowledged they were open to a charge of double standards, having granted local communities the final say over windfarm applications but overruling fracking decisions.
The documents reveal “dirty tricks” and “deceit”, according to shadow ministers, councillors and green campaigners, which strengthen fears that the government is determined to force shale gas exploration on communities.
The report on the impact of fracking on the rural economy was produced by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and published in 2014 in heavily redacted form. But Greenpeace used freedom of information rules (FOI) to force the publication of the full report a year later. The report said fracking could cause house prices to fall and risk damage to health and the environment, but that it could also generate new jobs.
Lancashire county council (LCC) was considering the UK’s first major planning applications from shale firm Cuadrilla in June 2015 and requested to see the full report. But new documents released by the energy department to Greenpeace under FOI rules show Andrea Leadsom, then energy minister, asked to delay the publication of the full report until after the LCC decision.
An email on 15 June from Leadsom’s private secretary to the then energy secretary Amber Rudd and media officers said: “[Leadsom] suggests we do nothing before Cuafrilla’s [sic] planning decision if we have time.”
The report was duly published two days after LCC’s decision, which was to reject the applications. Emails show it was deliberately released “quite late in the day – around 4pm”, presumably to limit scrutiny.
Another email, on 19 June, showed the government’s awareness of concern that, while local communities had been given the power to reject windfarm applications, fracking applications could be pushed through by ministers, as then happened in October 2016.
The email, from an energy official, provided “lines to take” for David Cameron ahead of prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
“If pressed on the double standards of letting communities have the final say on windfarms but not fracking: [respond with] the Conservative manifesto set out a commitment to make changes to planning, to give local people the final say on windfarm applications. We wholly agree that local communities should play a key role in determining shale operations in their local area too, through democratically elected councils and the planning system.”
Alan Whitehead, Labour’s shadow energy minister, said: “These documents represent an astonishing catalogue of attempts to subvert and impede a reasonable debate about the merits and demerits of fracking. Altogether this is a sorry saga of evasion and deceit, which only serves to strengthen the now widely held opinion that government is determined to push through fracking regardless of facts or debate, and has actively connived to subvert inconvenient analysis when it surfaces.”
Councillor Marcus Johnstone, who proposed the LCC motion that requested the report to be published in full, said: “It is dirty tricks of the highest order – a real eye-opener. It shows complete contempt for local democracy. It is very obvious they were hellbent on fracking happening anyway, whatever we said in Lancashire.”
Hannah Martin, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: “These dirty tricks make a mockery of any government claim to be on the side of local people. First the council was overruled, and now it’s been revealed that the government tried to pull the wool over their eyes too.”
While the energy department released documents related to the publication of the report, Defra is still refusing to follow suit. “Ministers should publish the correspondence on fracking that Defra has been hiding for more than a year,” said Martin. “This is an opportunity for May’s government to make a clean break with the past and prove they can be trusted.”
A government spokesman said: “We complied fully with the information commissioner’s [FOI] ruling that we publish the report within the established timescales,” ie within 35 days of 9 June 2015.
He said: “As the material made clear, we do not believe this internal document – which was incomplete and had not been peer-reviewed – was sufficiently analytically robust to inform policy-making.”