for Sunday Herald, 25 January 2015
The whole process has been “deeply flawed” and government assurances have turned out to be “meaningless”, they claim. A formal complaint against the planning authority, Dumfries and Galloway Council, is under investigation by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.
Planning permissions for 18 boreholes and a gas plant to extract coalbed methane around Canonbie were granted by the council in 2009 and 2010, then renewed in 2011 and 2013. This all happened with virtually no public scrutiny, and decisions were taken by officials rather than councillors.
According to critics, the applications managed to slip under the radar because they were treated as individual small developments, rather than being considered together as a major development. Developers have often been accused of splitting potentially controversial projects into more acceptable bite-sized chunks, a tactic known as “salami-slicing”.
The applications were made by a gas company working in conjunction with Buccleuch, who owns vast tracts of land in the area. They are keen to exploit what they say is “a significant national resource”, but have not yet begun major works.
Planning permissions for the boreholes were renewed despite the discovery in 2011 by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) that four exploratory boreholes drilled earlier had flaws that could cause them to leak. An internal Sepa report revealed by the Sunday Herald in March 2014 said there had been “poor borehole construction” at Canonbie.
According to Sepa, the boreholes lacked cement lining between 100 and 400 metres underground, potentially allowing a water aquifer to be contaminated. The four boreholes were plugged and abandoned last year.
Sepa has said that it did not inform Dumfries and Galloway Council of the flawed boreholes. It stressed, however, that it had toughened up its regulatory procedures.
Friends of the Earth Scotland, however, condemned the process. “Local people were given no idea of the scale and type of development really proposed, and little opportunity to engage,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.
“Serious concerns from Sepa about poor quality of boreholes at Canonbie should have triggered action from the local authority to put a hold on planning permission, but no such action was taken.”
Bill Frew, chair of Canonbie and District Residents Association, argued that the multiple failures of the regulatory system meant that official assurances could not be trusted. “Communities should have no confidence that they and their loved ones will be protected,” he said.
Canonbie has been used as a case study by a campaign group lobbying for equal rights of appeal for local communities. “Canonbie provides evidence that the culture change towards better public engagement in planning isn’t working,” said Clare Symonds from Planning Democracy.
Sepa pointed out that gas boreholes can’t be used unless it grants them a licence. After discussions with the Health and Safety Executive and the Department of Energy and Climate Change in London, it had strengthened the regulatory requirements from April 2013.
“The local authority is responsible for granting planning permission for surface works associated with borehole construction, but is not involved with the design or sign off of the borehole itself,” said a Sepa spokeswoman.
Dumfries and Galloway Council said it couldn’t comment while the matter was under investigation by the ombudsman. “The alleged non-compliance with the Sepa licence is a matter for Sepa and it would have no impact on the council’s interests as planning authority,” added a council spokesman.