FRACKING in Hampshire is at least five years away, according to a planning expert.

Richard Bate, planning consultant, told a packed meeting in Winchester on Tuesday the controversial gas extraction technique would be held up by the planning process.

Fracking involves blasting shale rock with water to access natural gas and oil, but there are concerns for the environment, particularly polluting the surrounding areas with chemicals and radioactive material found deep underground.

Licences for exploratory drilling have already been granted in some parts of Hampshire, including near Winchester between Stockbridge and Kings Worthy.

Speaking at a meeting of around 150 people at the United Church, Mr Bate said: “There are three rounds of planning permission.

“First to explore an area, then if gas or oil is found an appraisal of how much there is, and finally to produce it.

“It will take quite a while for these applications to come in and I would think fracking is something like five years away.

“We are nowhere near the production phase in this part of the world at the moment.”

Applications have to be approved by Hampshire County Council, the Environment Agency, the Health & Safety Executive, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The meeting, organised by environmental groups Winchester Friends of the Earth and Winchester Action on Climate Change, also heard from Dr Jurg Matter from the University of Southampton, a fracking expert who said the process came with many risks.

He said: “Up to four million gallons of water are injected per well and 10 to 15 per cent comes back as a chemical cocktail that needs to be treated.

“There are a lot of open questions and we have to improve our technology. We have to use less hazardous fracking fluid. We have to reduce hazardous gas and water coming back and we have to reduce leakage of the hazardous water into surface water resources.”

According to Dr Matter, surveys in the North have found more than one trillion cubic feet of shale gas — enough to power 15 million homes for one year.

But no studies have been carried out in the South yet.

Barrie Slipper, of Hythe, who used to work in the oil industry, and attended the meeting, said: “We cannot afford to emit any more carbon emissions. The time for fossil fuels is up and we have very few years left to end it. It’s just crazy going after extreme sources like shale. That age is gone and we really have to move on.”