|I have just completed two very long and mentally exhausting days at the Llandow Test Drilling Public Inquiry.
Given my state of mental fatigue, I may not be in the best of minds to rationalise what has just gone on, but I feel obliged to post something before endeavouring to forget about the whole issue for a while at least.
Having previously gone on record as praising the Vale Planning Committee for their courage in taking a historic decision in rejecting the application (https://bridgendgreens.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/historic-decision-by-vale-council-to-reject-shle-gas-test-drilling/) it now pains me and saddens me that they have so completely mishandled the matter that they felt the need to totally capitulate at the Public Inquiry.
This is what appears to have happened:
Through the Scrutiny Committee Meeting and loads of written representations, a comprehensive case against the test drilling application led to the unanimous verdicts of both Scrutiny and Planning Committees against the proposal. However, presumably on the guidance of their Planning Officers – who had recommended approving the application – they couched their rejection as being purely on the basis of the evidence of Welsh Water’s expressed concerns over possible groundwater contamination. This was their big mistake. There were, indeed still are, plenty of other material considerations, many of which I have consistently suggested are more telling than this groundwater issue, which could, and should have been included as additional grounds for refusal. It was immediately obvious that there would be an appeal put in. Had it been more thoroughly rejected, it is possible, given the overwhelming public opposition, that Coastal Oil & Gas may have at least thought twice about appealing.
What happened next really put the cat amongst the pigeons. Welsh Water, after some ‘dialogue’ with Coastal Oil & Gas, withdrew their opposition and declared that they would not participate in the Public Inquiry (Appeal). I again presume that the Planning Officers were instrumental in advising the Planning Committee how to respond to this development. Their line of thinking appears to have been that, given that the only cited grounds for rejection had melted away, they could be on very dodgey ground with the Planning Inspector, and possibly at risk of facing a large costs bill from the appellants. With an election for their seats imminent, the Planning Committee appear to have bottled sticking to their convictions in favour of ‘defending the budget’ and adopting a damage limitation strategy. In these times of budget cuts all over the place, I guess I can understand how this may have seemed like acting in their ‘constituents best interests’ (in other words, serving in their own best interests in terms of getting re-elected).
In essence, they moved away from a decision based on participatory democracy at its best (local heroes), to a politically expedient decision based on purely financial considerations (‘merchant bankers’!).
Their opening statement to the Public Inquiry ripped my guts out. Not only were they not going to defend their original decision, but they were now saying that, subject to conditions, they were now prepared to approve the application and come to an arrangement over costs. At that point in time it seemed like the whole thing was going to be a fait accompli and we would be done by lunchtime.
However, chinks of light in the gathering gloom soon started to appear. Inspector Emyr Jones made it clear that he was still prepared to listen to the quite extensive list of witnesses that had come prepared for the fray. I sought, and got, assurances from him that it was still within his power to uphold the original decision to reject the application, and it was game on.
I do not propose to give a blow by blow account of events, but save to say I think it would be fair to say the following:
But will all this be enough to sway the Inspector’s verdict our way?
I simply don’t know. I feel pretty sure that he came into this Public Inquiry thinking it was a pretty straightforward case. Given the chief protagonists opening positions, it was bound to go the appellant’s way, I suspect he thought. Two day’s later, I think we have at least succeeded in giving him serious pause for thought. In actual fact, I don’t envy him his task one little bit. There are going to be far reaching ramifications whatever he decides – and I doubt he expected that when he took this case on. It is always easy to be cynical about politically appointed Inquiry chairs, especially after their verdicts. So let me say here and now that he conducted the Inquiry impeccably and I believe his verdict will be properly considered and have to be accepted which ever way it falls.
What happens next?
Of course, whatever the verdict, whether the battle is won or lost, the war goes on. We will prevail sooner or later – there is no other option. Keep the faith!