Falkirk is a town and densely-populated district in Scotland’s Midland valley, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Since the 17th century it has been an industrial centre for coal, iron and steel, and Grangemouth remains the location of Scotland’s only petrochemical refinery.
In recent decades, extractive industries waned, and the local council responded with efforts to diversify the economy and transform a run-down district into a clean, green, pleasant place to live and work, for attracting new residents and investment.Views in and around Falkirk
Subsequent achievements include development of the Helix “Eco” Park, the Falkirk Wheel, and the Forth and Clyde Canal as international tourist attractions. In 2011, Falkirk won the STV award for Scotland’s most beautiful town.
The Falkirk Greenspace Initiative, a council project for improving the local environment, economy and quality of life, was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Prize at the Scottish Award for Quality in Planning in 2012, and Gold at the Green Apple Awards in 2014.
In the words of local SNP Councillor Carleschi, speaking about one of Falkirk’s new village developments, which could be affected by unconventional gas (UG) extraction:
“The area is a rural tranquil place which surrounding housing areas mutually benefit from: one of the many reasons these residents chose this area to live and bring their family up in”.
The industry Falkirk communities face is UG extraction. The present focus is coal-bed methane (CBM) but there are also significant shale gas interests in the area.
CBM and shale gas “fracking”, is an intensive industry. The developer’s estimates for the 332km² license area relevant to our story, PEDL133, involve up to 600 drilling rigs on productive farmland stretching across Falkirk and Stirling local authorities.
CBM entails pumping huge volumes of contaminated water out of coal seams, and then retrieving trapped methane as it depressurises. “Fracking” involves fracturing shale by pumping huge volumes of chemicals into the ground, which releases gas trapped in the rock.
There is a growing body of evidence worldwide to suggest UG extraction entails significant, often uncontrollable, risks to public health, ecology, climate and landscape, from fugitive and waste contaminants, general operations, and heavy industrialisation.
Benefits claimed by supporters on the other hand – energy security, jobs, cheaper gas, low climate impact, and so on – have been shown, at the very least, to be highly questionable.
In the words of the convenor of a local Community Council, Eric Appelbe:
“We do not believe that CBM contributes to the positive vision for the area’s future. In particular, given the negative environmental impacts of the proposal, we do not believe it will result in improved quality of life for our community. It is not a sustainable development and will not contribute to meeting global and local environmental commitments. So far as we can tell, there are few benefits for the local community.”
Indeed, recent whistleblowing in the US suggests the industry is a “Ponzi scheme” where prospectors prove resources, sell the land at a significant return to bigger players based on spectacularly overstated production estimates, and then both use their groundless performance to leverage investment and loans to buy more land, and so on. For some, the bubble is beginning to burst, with many US players sustaining heavy losses, and this is the reason investors are turning to naïve markets, like the UK.
The PEDL133 license has changed hands many times, reflecting the inherently dynamic nature of the new industry. September 2014 saw two of the most significant developments.
First, Dart Energy – a CBM drilling company of Australian origin and the community’s main opponent to date – was bought out by iGas, a UK-based company part-owned by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation and, since the buyout, the UK’s largest UG drilling company.
The second was the purchase of a 51% interest in PEDL133’s shale gas assets by INEOS, the company that runs the Grangemouth refinery, and which is two-thirds owned by one the UK’s wealthiest men, Jim Ratcliffe.
In the last week of September, INEOS also publicised a financial incentives plan for land-owners (4% of revenues) and communities (2%) to help kick-start “fracking” in the UK, and Westminster announced taxpayers would be underwriting INEOS’s development of Grangemouth as the “European hub of fracking” to the tune of £230m.
Community opposition began in 2012 when Dart submitted a planning application which triggered numerous neighbour notifications (the applicant had used an old map, and hadn’t realised they were drilling beneath a new village!).
Fragmented initiatives by community councils and local residents coalesced into a series of general public meetings. Research was shared and individual worries about potential risks to homes, health and the environment evolved into a general concern about a common threat.
- if this application was granted, it would be the first to commercialise UG operations in the UK;
- exploratory drilling and fracking in PEDL133 had been going on for 20 years – the oldest gas-field in the UK. Almost all applications had been granted by the local authority under delegated powers so that they never went in front of councillors and without recourse to residents;
- in all this time, the environmental and safety regulators responsible for our safety (SEPA and the HSE) had never paid an unannounced site visit, or conducted any independent, or base line, testing, or assessment of health impacts on the public and specially protected nature reserves;
- the community had been consulted, apparently, and declared to be supportive of the development … based on 20 responses to a questionnaire conducted by Dart; emerging evidence from CBM operations, particularly in Australia, suggested significant risks to community and environmental health
In the words of a local mother, grandmother and midwife, Alison Doyle:
“Just over a year from moving to my new home, my seemingly settled life fell apart. When I think of Dart being successful I think of the loss of all I have fought so hard to achieve…the safe, healthy, fresh, spiritual place that I can finally can call home. The uplifting walks with my grandchildren…will the swans stay? Will the air be okay for my grandchildren to breathe? Is the water in my tap clean? I work nightshift, will the noise keep me awake? Will this be a safe community to live in, to bring up children in? What about our eco-school? Even with all the fancy graphs and toxic measurements that Dart produce, the doubt over whether the contaminants are there will always be in the back of my mind. The questions pile up…who will monitor the development? How is it regulated? Could there be an emergency, and accident? How do we clean it up? How do we recover? Could we recover? What about the value of my newly bought home? We had put any savings we had into the purchase, was this now under threat?”
Supported by consent decision-making approaches and independent facilitation, a diverse group of residents were able to pool their knowledge into a collective plan of action. This group went onto become the Concerned Communities of Falkirk (CCoF).
The community response emerged in the form of two documents:
The first was an 8 page pro-forma objection letter, the Community Mandate. The approach was chosen because each letter would be treated as a representation, whereas with a petition (which we also had), it is only counted as one, no matter how many people sign.
The Mandate began with two visions for 20 years in the future – the first, informed by local aspirations and council policy; the second, by genuine concerns about the risks of UG industrialisation. It then set out evidence for CBM health impacts and 5 minimum safety requirements for the assessment and regulation of operations.
After 2 months of knocking on neighbours doors, over 2500 mandates had been submitted, with over 80% of some areas signing – the biggest response to an application in Falkirk history.
A month later came the UK’s first Community Charter, which wholly redefined the narrative from “fighting against” to identifying what it is we are “fighting for”.
Drawing from the Mandate’s positive vision, the Charter mapped those shared tangible and intangible assets – termed “Cultural Heritage” – which were agreed by consensus to be fundamental to local health and well-being. “Cultural heritage” is something that needs to be assessed under European law and we were presenting our cultural heritage as something more than just historic buildings – as something based on our lived experience and relationships between land, people and all other living beings; as something that we wished to bequeath to future generations in a better state than we found it.
Assets included the goal of a clean and safe environment, the healthy development of children, the sanctuary of the home, the diversity and stability of the local ecosystem, the resilience and continuity of the community, trust in elected representatives, and food security. As we went through the process we began to collectively realise how much our peace of mind rested on a rich and diverse eco-system. For example, many of the residents spoke about the swans in the local waterway which provided a source of joy to them. On a larger scale with the Falkirk Greenspace Initiative mentioned above, the participation of residents in regenerating the ecological health of local areas generated new relationships between people, the Council and the land. This lived experience was the intangible asset of the community that went towards our Cultural Heritage because it built pride and hope for a better future. Dart’s proposals would demolish this hope that had been building.
Also set out were our rights and responsibilities to protect and improve this “Cultural Heritage” for future generations. We proposed a “participatory planning” process by which residents could work collaboratively with council and developers, by reference to the Charter, to ensure genuinely “sustainable development”. This provided a concrete definition of this slippery term, and illustrated how it is only effective when under community stewardship. We agreed that all species and beings had a right to exist based on their “intrinsic value and contribution to the integrity, stability and beauty of the natural community upon which the well-being of our present and future generations depend.” The Charter therefore proposes that these natural beings should also have a voice in the participatory planning process along with other stakeholders (this could be done by residents standing in locum for these other species and beings).
The Charter has since been adopted by 4 local Community Councils, half of all Local Authority Councillors and an ever-growing number of local farmers and residents, and has inspired the set-up of an independent Community Chartering network
Scottish Government set aside a special “Charter” session at the Dart public inquiry (see below), and in August 2014 requested further details on what connection the Charter could have to the existing planning law framework (for a separate inquiry pertaining to Falkirk’s new local development plan).
In the words of the former leader of Falkirk Council, David Alexander:
“The Community Charter will, in my opinion, become a template for community groups across the length and breadth of Scotland. It is the very outcome the Scottish Government sought with the formulation of the Community Empowerment Bill”
The weight of community objections caused Falkirk Council to contract a consultancy, AMEC, to independently evaluate Dart’s application. Despite Dart accusing the Mandate of local ‘scaremongering’, AMEC went on to identify the same risks as the document, particularly, in relation to local hydrogeology.
In May 2013, Dart appealed to Scottish Government on the basis that Falkirk and Stirling Councils were taking too long to determine their application. Matters were escalated. Months of negotiation were unable to resolve AMEC’s concerns. In autumn 2013, a 3 week public inquiry was called. It would become one of the longest and most complex in Scotland in recent decades.
The pre-examination (PEM) meeting was held in December 2013, in a packed local school hall. A few days before both Councils turned down Dart’s application, becoming the first two local authorities in the UK to reject an unconventional gas proposal.
Thus at the PEM, CCoF, Councils, and Friends of the Earth Scotland were united in opposition. When asked by the Reporters (the two decision-makers for the Inquiry), an overwhelming majority of local objectors chose to come under CCoF’s umbrella, including nine Community Councils, representing over 100K people.
By the time the inquiry began, mid-March 2014, a collective effort had raised enough funds to appoint a legal team. This included donations by residents and groups, locally and nationally, a dinner-dance at a local castle, a community ceilidh, “Gastonbury”, a gig featuring well-known local bands, and a country-wide crowd-funding campaign by 38 degrees.
Leading our legal team was esteemed environmental lawyer, Sir Crispin Agnew QC. Our expert witnesses, offering pro bono services, included professors of geology and public health effectiveness, government advisors on toxic and radioactivity, and a GP who had first-hand experience of the Australian health impacts of CBM. For the “Charter” and hearing sessions, evidence was given by a line-up of brave local residents and councillors and an expert on the importance of human values for sustainability. Here is local farmer, Leslie Dick, speaking to the Charter.
“I’m lucky to have lived my whole life in this beautiful area of productive countryside with good farming neighbours and I want my children and grandchildren to continue to experience this. The continued encroachment of drilling rigs will change this forever”.
CCoF’s final inquiry submissions drew heavily from European Law, including important new arguments within a UK legal context. Notably, the right of communities to participate meaningfully in environmental decision-making (Aarhus Convention) and to have the information necessary to properly assess risks before the planning decision (EIA Directive).
Dart took the opposite view. Namely, that environmental regulators could deal with the details of the risk assessment through environmental licenses required by the operator after the application was granted. Their case had, in our view, relied heavily on evidence not present before the court, but conveyed by expert witnesses who claimed to have seen it. In CCoF’s view, if this argument holds, then local planning and EIA processes are unfit for purpose.
On 10 October 2014, around the date we expected the Reporters to make their decision, the decision was called in by Scottish Ministers. This means that the Reporters will not be making the final decision, they will make recommendations to the Scottish Planning Minister (Derek Mackay) who will make the final decision. Derek Mackay, in an article from the BBC, said that this decision to recall the application had been taken “in light of the considerable public interest in the proposals” and said that recalling the decision was “in line with the government’s cautious, considered and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland.” We understand the decision could now be around February 2015 though it may be earlier.
We hope Derek Mackay stands by his words and adopts a more cautious approach than has been the case in England where recent moves have given drillers rights to forgo notifying affected individuals of their proposals, to authorise the trespass beneath homes caused by drilling, and to allow drillers to leave “any substance” in the ground after their operations.
Our significant achievements include influencing a new national policy framework (published July 2014) which takes a more neutral, and tighter regulatory, position on UG than the last, including requirements for communities to be consulted during the development of the risk assessment – a first in local planning!
If our arguments are accepted by the inquiry reporters and Scottish Ministers, it will have far-reaching implications for community safety and environmental health and sustainability for our local area, and potentially countrywide. And with the Charter’s “participatory planning”, we have proposed practical processes by which such laws could be truly fulfilled, as well as a method by which natural communities could be given a voice.
However, our greatest success has been our teamwork. Negotiating the diversity of perspectives that make up a community has involved stress, conflict, compromise and weighty learnings. But the benefits of working together with shared values and purposes have outweighed the challenges many, many times over.
Why is this important?
Our story is important because it’s an exemplar of a dynamic upon which a tolerable future now rests. Meaningful change depends on political will, which depends on public will, which depends on genuine community participation in, and ownership of, the what, how and why of that change.
Our journey has taught us that sustainable development is best realised by local residents. In possession of all the information, with all local perspectives represented, and through genuinely democratic processes, a community will come to the wisest decision on whether a development constitutes a risk to their well-being and commonwealth.
The threat facing Falkirk communities is far from over. Indeed, our local players and the weight of media, political and legal backing for UG grows more formidable by the day. But nothing is likelier to succeed than our acting in concert to protect our shared vision, values and assets. We’ve been reawakened by the scale and wisdom of what can be achieved together.
Indeed the balance conferred by communities standing up to corporations may be the only thing now that can stop them chasing profit off the cliff with all in tow. On the positive side, the rewards of working with our neighbours to safeguard what we value for future generations are manifold.
Follow the ‘Falkirk’ tag for more news and information as the situation unfolds