An MP had a fiery clash with the barrister for chemicals giant INEOS during an ongoing inquiry into whether exploratory drilling for gas should be allowed in Derbyshire.
Lee Rowley’s testimony at the inquiry, which could see exploratory mining begin in the countryside north of Chesterfield, stretched to more than an hour.
During the cross-examination of North East Derbyshire MP Mr Rowley, led by INEOS barrister Gordon Steele, the MP stated that he felt the proposal, which could eventually lead to fracking, is “inappropriate” and would cause “unacceptable harm” to green belt land.
At one stage of the debate, Mr Steele said “as an MP you should know better” – this was due to the perception that Mr Rowley had introduced evidence which had not been submitted beforehand.
During the clash, Mr Rowley accused Mr Steele of trying to “box me in to the specific answers you want me to give”.
In his testimony, the Conservative MP, elected last year, said: “Before I was elected, I did not have a strong view on fracking. However, I do not feel that this development has any benefits for the residents of Marsh Lane.
“If the applicant was prepared to discuss distribution [of shale gas and fracked water, which could see the creation of new jobs] then I’m sure there will be [benefits] but your applicant is pained to do so.”
Fracking is the fracturing of underground rock using pressurised water and chemicals to release stores of gas.
The MP said that he used to make money via the oil and gas industry but has made his view in opposing the proposal on this case alone.
Mr Rowley stated that the proposed site, in Bramley Moor Lane, near the village of Marsh Lane would be visible from multiple sites across the Moss Valley Conservation Area.
He stated that the Derby and Derbyshire Minerals Local Plan states that applications should be refused if they cause disturbance to other conservation areas and protected sites.
Mr Rowley continued: “I have spent hundreds of hours with hundreds of residents who are concerned, emotional and anxious about these plans.
“The harm that would result in the green belt would clearly outweigh any benefits. It can’t be the case that other sites could not be considered where exploratory drilling would not infringe on the green belt.
“If there is a green belt hierarchy, then this site would sit at the top. It is a strategically-important part of the green belt, bounded by it on all four sides, and it is hugely important to the local community – the proposal would present a substantial visual intrusion.”
He stated that encouraging tourists to Eckington parish would be “nigh on impossible” if industrial activity of this nature was approved.
Mr Rowley also said that the land to which the plans relate has been almost entirely untouched for 700 years and as such should be protected.
Mr Steele suggested that a recent ministerial statement supported plans for fracking. Mr Rowley says that he accepts the statement, but that it sets out that “sites must be assessed on a site-by-site basis and with regards to context”.
Three weeks of drilling took place adjacent to the site in 1987, said Mr Steele.
This did not require planning permission, said Mr Rowley, and is “not directly comparable, because this application would last for five years and would see bulky and industrial equipment placed on the site”.
Drilling on the proposed site by INEOS is set to take place for 14 weeks, and it has applied to use the site for five years.
The ongoing inquiry, which began on Monday and stretches to Friday, June 29, is being overseen by government planning inspector Elizabeth Hill.
It is the inspector who will have the final say on the plans.
These plans have reached public inquiry after INEOS, a petrochemical company, took Derbyshire County Council to appeal due to “unreasonable delays” in the planning process.
It had applied in May 2017, and filed for appeal in December 2017.
The county council ruled on the application in February, voting against officers’ advice by 9-1 to reject the proposals.
Campaign group Eckington Against Fracking, led by David Kesteven, has rallied thousands of protesters to lobby against the proposals, it is a core player in the inquiry alongside the county council and INEOS.
While the inquiry ends, a final decision is not expected for several months.