Fracking should be completely banned from national parks, according to a strong majority of the UK public.
The controversial issue of shale gas exploration in some of the country’s most precious landscapes forced ministers in July to claim they were tightening planning guidance on drilling in national parks, but a new poll for the Guardian shows the public has been unmoved by the assurances.
The poll, conducted by Panelbase, shows 60% of people think fracking should not be allowed in national parks, compared to 22% that do. It also shows rejection of another controversial move by ministers, who plan to change trespass laws to prevent people blocking fracking underneath their own land.
Over 70% of UK people disagree with the law change, with only 17% in favour. Even among the group describing themselves as in favour of fracking, 62% disagreed with removing the ability to block fracking under their homes.
Ministers have made large areas of the country available for shale gas licences, including 10 of the UK’s 13 national parks.
In July, energy minister Matt Hancock defended the inclusion of national parks: “There will need to be exceptional circumstances to do this in natural parks, precisely because for decades there already has been exploration for conventional oil in national parks and it’s been done in a way that has not caused great controversy … We don’t want to put a stop to something that’s already happening that is happening uncontroversially.”
Subsequent analysis of the new planning rules announced by ministers showed they repeated almost word-for-word the safeguards that had already been in place. It also emerged ministers gave the green light for fracking despite the overwhelming opposition expressed during the government’s own consultation.
“The results of this poll are loud and clear: the public is against fracking in national parks,” said Nick Clack, senior energy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England. “We believe this opposition extends to other protected areas. The government must listen to such a strong message from voters and ensure that drilling for oil and gas does not take place in these areas. Given the huge uncertainties that still surround fracking, we need great caution and the highest possible safeguards if fracking is to go ahead anywhere.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) said: “Only in exceptional circumstances and where there is a clear case that this is in the public interest will an application [to frack in a national park] get approved by a local authority. This builds on existing rules and a robust regulatory framework that we already have in place. Ultimately, done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country.”
This week, officers for the South Downs National Park Authority recommended shale company Celtique Energie’s application to drill in the park at a site near Fernhurst, West Sussex, should be turned down at a planning meeting next week. The application had “failed to demonstrate exceptional circumstances exist for such exploration and appraisal to take place within the protected landscape and that it is in the public interest to do so”, the officers said.
Decc’s own polling, published in August, showed falling support for fracking, with 24% of people supporting shale gas extraction, compared to 29% in March 2014 and 28% in December 2013. Also in August, the government was criticised for censoring a report into the impact of shale gas drilling on house prices and local services.
The poll for the Guardian asked people whether – if properly regulated – fracking should go ahead in the UK. With that caveat, support for fracking rises to 57%, with only 26% opposed. Just one in 10 people would be happy for fracking to go ahead near their home.
The new poll also showed that arguments made by prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne that UK shale gas could lower energy bills had gained traction, despite the suggestion being dismissed as “baseless” by economist Lord Nick Stern. Nearly half of people (43%) agreed that “extracting gas from shale in the UK will help lower my energy bills”, with 30% disagreeing.
The Decc spokeswoman said: “Whilst it’s still too early to make a full assessment of the impact of UK shale development on prices we do know that globally, there are scenarios where shale gas production can exert downward pressure on gas prices.”
• The poll was conducted by Panelbase, an independent market research agency, using online interviews with 1,100 adults who are resident in the UK between 18-21 August 2014. The results have been weighted to fully represent the profile of the population.