The planning committee that granted planning permission for testing and flaring at Cuadrilla’s oil exploration well at Balcombe was misdirected, a court heard this morning.
Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association, which opposed Cuadrilla’s application, was making its case at a judicial review of the decision by West Sussex County Council.
The association’s barrister, David Wolfe QC, argued at the Royal Courts of Justice in London that council officers gave wrong advice on what the committee could consider in making its decision. He said that at the meeting on April 29th members of the Association had asked the committee to defer its decision until it had more information. They also asked for conditions on any planning permission to be drawn more tightly than were being proposed.
“Had the committee not been misdirected then it might have weighed issues in its mind differently and it might have done things differently”, he said.
The court heard that the council’s planning officer should not have directed the committee that it was obliged to assume that organisations, such as the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency, were doing their jobs satisfactorily.
Mr Wolfe gave as an example a recommendation by Public Health England to West Sussex County Council that emissions of sulphur dioxide from a flare at the site should be monitored. The committee was told that an environmental permit, issued by the Environment Agency, would deal with this issue. This was simply wrong, Mr Wolfe said, because the EA had said monitoring would not be carried out for sulphur dioxide.
“The planning officer was not saying chose between Public Health England and the Environment Agency”, he said. “She was saying they are at one”. This was misleading, he said.
In another example, he said, the residents raised concerns about whether Cuadrilla’s well would be affected by an earlier well drilled in the 1980s on the same site. The residents were worried about whether there were any problems with the integrity of the old well.
Mr Wolfe said the planning officer told the committee that the Health and Safety Executive had looked at this issue in detail. But he said correspondence between the council and the HSE revealed that the well had not been inspected and there was not enough information in the planning application for the HSE to make any assessment. That correspondence was not available to the committee, Mr Wolfe said.
“Had the committee realised that the HSE had not done the detailed work it might have said: ‘We do have concerns about what the residents are saying’”, he said.
Objections to the application
More than 890 people objected to Cuadrilla’s application and the residents’ association argued that the committee should take this into account when making its decision. Mr Wolfe said the planning officer was wrong to say that the scale of opposition should not be considered.
Breaches of planning conditions
Residents argued that Cuadrilla had breached conditions of an earlier planning permission. Because of this, they called for conditions to be drawn more tightly. The planning officer told the committee that planning permission went with land, not the applicant and members had to assume that conditions should be complied with..
The judge hearing the judicial review, Mr Justice Gilbart, criticised FFBRA for focussing on Cuadrilla, rather than generic breaches of conditions. Your clients have adopted an approoach that might have been unwise, he said, describing it as an adversarial attack. But Mr Wolfe said this did not reduce the force of what the residents were arguing.
Mr Wolfe said the committee should also have considered the likely crime and disorder implications of the application, which it did not. This had been raised by Cllr Sue Mullins in the committee but her microphone was cut off.during the committee meeting.
The judicial review continues this afternoon when the council’s barrister, James Maurici QC, will respond to the residents’ claims. The action was watched this morning by about six Balcombe villagers, including Sue Taylor who is representing FFBRA. Jane Moseley, the planning officer, and Becky Moutrey, the legal officer, who both gave advice to the committee were also in the public gallery, along with the committee chair, Cllr Heidi Brunsden.