NATIONAL Parks such as the New Forest and the South Downs will be protected from fracking unless there are “exceptional circumstances”, ministers announced today.

The policy was unveiled as the latest bidding process for shale companies seeking licences to explore for oil and gas was opened.

The Government has committed to going “all out for shale”, claiming development of the gas and oil resource is needed to improve energy security, boost jobs and the economy and bring down energy prices.

But opponents say it causes disruption and damaging development in the countryside, can cause minor earthquakes and the risk of water pollution, and that exploiting new oil and gas resources is not compatible with tackling climate change.

Today ministers unveiled new guidance which means applications for developments in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites should be refused other than in “exceptional circumstances and in the public interest”.

The announcement will be welcomed in the New Forest where the National Park Authority (NPA) pressed the Government to exclude the area from the controversial practice, as reported by the Daily Echo in May.

At the time NPA member Cllr David Harrison said: “The New Forest should be one of the last places in the country where fracking is permitted.

"It would be a mistake to think that the planning process gives the New Forest enough protection against environmental threats on this scale.”

Today the Department of Energy and Climate Change said where an application in these areas is refused and the developer launches an appeal, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will consider whether to make the final decision himself to ensure the policy is being properly applied.

Business and energy minister Matthew Hancock said: “Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth.

“We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of our large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy.

“As one of the cleanest fossil fuels, shale gas can be a key part of the UK's answer to climate change and a bridge to a much greener future.

“The new guidance published today will protect Britain's great National Parks and outstanding landscapes, building on the existing rules that ensure operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced.

“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.”

But Greenpeace warned that the National Parks policy would not appease campaigners against fracking.

Louise Hutchins, Greenpeace UK energy campaigner, said: “The Government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside, including in sensitive areas such as those covering major aquifers.

Daily Echo:

The New Forest

“Eric Pickles' supposed veto power over drilling in National Parks will do nothing to quell the disquiet of fracking opponents across Britain.

“Ministers waited until the parliamentary recess to make their move, no doubt aware of the political headache this will cause to MPs whose constituencies will be affected.”

The licences which can be applied for from today provide the first step to start drilling but do not give an absolute agreement to drill.

Planning permission, permits from the Environment Agency and agreement from the Health and Safety Executive will be required for further drilling.

Fracking involves drilling thousands of feet underground and then pumping in pressurised water and chemicals to crack the rocks below and release trapped pockets of gas. The controversial process has been blamed for causing mini-earthquakes in Lancashire.

Last year the Daily Echo revealed that gas companies have already been granted eight licences for fracking in southern Hampshire.

The areas affected include land between North Baddesley and Fairthorne, Kings Worthy and Stockbridge, and Chilton and Amport.

Licences have also been issued for Hampage Wood near Winchester and areas east of Fareham and Hambledon.

It is unlikely that all the sites would be fracked, because some might have the potential to generate conventional gas instead.