Rules to protect national parks from fracking are a sham, campaigners have claimed.

Ministers said fracking in areas of outstanding natural beauty should be refused other than in ‘exceptional circumstances and in the public interest’.

But environmentalists warned that since the Government had said shale gas and oil resources were in the interests of the country, the rules created a ‘giant loophole’ that could allow fracking in protected areas.

The new guidance for planners was unveiled as the latest bidding process opened for companies seeking licences to explore for oil and gas across the UK.

Planners were told to put great weight on conserving the scenic beauty and landscapes of national parks.

If an ‘unconventional’ oil or gas exploration scheme represents a ‘major development’ it should be refused unless there were exceptional circumstances and it is in the public interest.

The South Downs National Park Authority is currently considering plans by Celtique Energie for an exploratory drill for shale oil and gas in Fernhurst.

Business and energy minister Matthew Hancock said: “The new guidance will protect Britain's great national parks and outstanding landscapes, building on the existing rules that ensure operational best practices are robustly enforced.”

Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: “The supposed tougher rules to protect our beloved national parks from fracking are a sham.

“By introducing an exception under a vague ‘public interest’ case, they’ve created a giant loophole that could allow fracking, potentially causing serious environmental damage.