The planning committee of the South Downs National Park Authority voted this morning to reject an application from Celtique Energie to drill an exploratory oil well at Fernhurst. Here is a summary of the key issues raised by members of the committee as they came to their decision.
Charles Peck said paragraph 116 of the National Planning Policy Framework gave the committee a “clear and absolute requirement of what had to take place”. Paragraph 116 says planning permission should be refused for major developments in National Parks except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.
Charles Peck said: “Parliament has recognised that National Parks are in the national interest and this is a very high level of recognition. Arguably it is just as high as the national recognition of the need for a reliable energy supply. Obviously the solution is … drill the National Parks last – that is, in effect, what paragraph 116 says. If you are going to drill in the parks you have to show your national interest in energy procurement is equal to national exaltation of a National Park”
Members agreed that Celtique Energie had not proved that the application was in the national interest or that there were exceptional circumstances that justified approval.
Paragraph 116 also required the committee to consider the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area. Celtique Energie said it had looked at drilling a horizontal well to Fernhurst from over six miles away, outside the National Park. The company said this would be too expensive and impractical and argued that there were, therefore, exceptional circumstances to justify drilling inside the National Park. Alan Aylesbury described this interpretation as “absurd”.
Doug James said: “I am not convinced there is a national need for this development in this National Park at this time. I do not feel it has been demonstrated it has to be in this nationally designated area”. He said “There is something special in this place….The inevitable noise and vehicle movements and presence of industrial activity would detract from the area”.
Ian Phillips criticised the landscape assessment by Celtique Energie’s consultancy, Terra Firma, for not giving “enough weight to the fact that this location is in a National Park: our finest and most valued landscape.”
He quoted from a 2008 report by the inspector examining the case for the South Downs National Park. This said the western weald (the area around Fernhurst) satisfied the natural beauty criteria for a National Park. Sometimes, it said, the landscape quality outscored the core chalk hills for general rural character, tranquillity, wilderness, and cultural heritage and wildlife sites that offered opportunities for recreation.
Ian Phillips rejected Celtique Energie’s argument that the area did not contribute to the special landscape qualities of the National Park. He said of the qualities identified by the National Park, the area contributed both “breath-taking views” and “tranquil, unspoilt places”. He said the National Park’s landscape officer suggested that the rural and tranquil characteristics of the area were highly sensitive to the height and scale of the industrial development proposed in the application.
Purposes of the National Park
National Parks are tasked with conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of their areas and promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public.
Ian Phillips said: “The proposals are for an industrial site that has been designed to meet its technical and operational functions”. He said it was not designed to be in sympathy to the landscape and was “in conflict with the two purposes of the National Park”.
Diana Kershaw, who was appointed by the Secretary of State to the National Park Authority, said Celtique Energie “could not have picked a worse location for their drilling operation. This is one of the most tranquil locations”.
She said: “There are not many places in the busy south east where you can go out into the landscape and get away from general noise. To go to that particular site and just have silence, tranquillity is incredibly calming for people who come out of towns and cities.”
The site, if approved, would have had security lighting 24-hours a day. Neville Harrison said: “This is one of the real dark sky areas of the National Park. It is a very special feature that you can see so little light”. Barbara Holyome agreed: “Lighting is a major problem in the National Parks”, she said.