The inquiry is the result of a complex planning application for exploratory drilling at a site near the village of Harthill, which is in Rotherham but close to the borders with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
Fracking company Ineos wants to conduct test drilling in the area, to check geological conditions beneath ground and that work – if allowed – could lead to an actual application for ‘fracking’, where rocks are fractured beneath ground to release shale gas.
Rotherham Council has never actually decided on the proposal because Ineos took their case a public appeal because it had not been decided within the timeframe set down by law, though Rotherham Council were still in a dialogue with them over the application when that happened late last year.
The council then made a decision they did not support the application, because the law prevents them from making an actual decision after the public inquiry process has been launched, on the grounds of ecological concerns and road safety fears, something supported by their highways department at the time.
However, Ineos has recently submitted a new traffic management plan to control lorries and other vehicles on the lanes around Harthill and last week, just days before the inquiry was due to start, Rotherham Council’s planning board again refused to support the changes proposed.
That was in direct conflict with advice from their highways officials, who said changes proposed by Ineos, including the installation of roadside passing bays and a system of ‘stop-go’ signals to restrict traffic on narrow sections of road, were adequate.
Giving evidence, Ian Ferguson, who has been a highways expert with the council for 36 years, said: “I can understand their (councillors) concerns, it may be difficult for people to imagine how the road could be improved to deal with traffic.
“That is often something we have, as officers. I can understand where they are coming from but I have no doubt in my mind that the appropriate professional recommendation is to support it,” he said.
His position meant that Rotherham Council’s advocate at the hearing, John Darby, suggested that other parties opposing the application should be allowed to question him, though that was declined by planning inspector Stephen Roscoe, who is heading the two week inquiry.
The council is also objecting to the application on the grounds of the impact it would have on the area’s ecology.
Meanwhile Ineos have said they decided to take the matter to a public inquiry after it became apparent from a Rotherham Council email late last year, while negotiations over the application had been continuing, that it would be rejected on highways grounds.
The application has caused widespread opposition in the area, although any desire to conduct actual fracking work would need planning consent in its own right.
Exploratory wells can also be used as ‘listening wells’ in the event of fracking taking place, allowing geologists to monitor underground activity to help ensure everything is proceeding as planned should work to extract gas commence.
The hearing will include a site visit, expected to take place on Friday, along with evidence from a wide range of witnesses on both sides of the argument.
Friends of the Earth are among those objecting and Yorkshire campaigner Richard Dyer said outside the hearing: “We are opposed to the development because it is the first stage of moving towards fracking.
“It is a test drill to look for shale gas and we believe we cannot afford to be looking for new sources of fossil fuels.”