New stage in six-year planning battle over oil drilling in Surrey Hills

Opponents of drilling near Leith Hill in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are preparing for another round in their long-running fight with Europa Oil and Gas.

The company is seeking planning permission for an underground corridor, which would allow it to drill a horizontal borehole to explore for oil near Dorking. A public consultation is now underway.

The proposed corridor covers 8.5ha and includes Metropolitan Green Belt and a conservation area, as well as the AONB. It stretches more than 800m from a proposed drilling site at Bury Hill Wood to underneath the village of Coldharbour. Leith Hill, the highest point in southern England, is 1.5km from the drilling site. Less than 1km away is the Iron Age hill fort of Anstiebury Camp, a scheduled ancient monument. The borehole would go through an aquifer.

Six-year planning dispute

This is the latest development in a protracted planning dispute involving Europa, Surrey County Council and campaigners in the Leith Hill area.

It began in 2008, when Europa applied for permission for the Bury Hill Wood drilling site. More than 1,550 people objected, as well as Mole Valley District Council, the Surrey Hills AONB Board and Capel and Wotton Parish Councils.

Surrey County Council refused that application but the company appealed and in the past six years there has been a public inquiry and several court hearings, with no final decision. A second public inquiry on the drilling site application is due to start in Dorking on April 22nd. (See Drilling history at the end of this post for more details).

In its latest application, Europa referred to government policy which seeks to maximise the potential of oil and gas reserves and to guidance which requires planning authorities to “give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction”. The company said the site was appropriate, despite being in an AONB, because construction, drilling, testing and restoration would last only 18 weeks. Then the land would be allowed to regenerate to woodland.

“Harm tranquil area”

But the campaign organisation, Leith Hill Action Group, said in a recent letter to supporters that the arguments used to reject the original application also applied to the latest one for the underground corridor. LHAG said the application would harm a tranquil area and should be regarded as a major development in an AONB.

In July 2014, the Government restated its planning guidance on applications in National Parks and AONBs. The guidance said: “Where applications represent major development, planning permission should be refused except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.”

LHAG said there were no exceptional circumstances and the application was not in the public interest. It also said any benefits were insufficient to justify development in the Greenbelt. There was only a 1 in 3 chance of finding oil, LHAG said, and if it were found it was likely to be little more than 0.01% of UK annual oil needs over the next 25 years.

The group argued that drilling risked polluting an aquifer and it threatened rare species of wildlife, including firecrests birds and dormice. It also said heavy lorries delivering to the site would be a problem for cyclists and pedestrians, including school children, as well as car users.

Europa said in its application that standard industry measures would ensure that there were no damaging effects to ground and surface water. It also said flares used to burn off flammable gases from the test well would not pose a health risk to the closest residents, who live 520m away.

Wildlife impact “not significant”

It acknowledged that the application could adversely affect wildlife but said the impact would not be significant. It also argued that the 35m rig would be screened by buildings, woodland and hills. The site would be lit at night but Europa said light nuisance would be negligible. It estimated the development would generate an average of 20 HGV movements a day at its busiest phase.

Surrey County Council said the earliest date its planning committee could consider the application was Wednesday March 25th. But councillors may choose to defer their decision until after the result of the public inquiry on the drilling site. If that happens the application could be delayed further because the so-called purdah period before May’s elections, when key decisions are suspended, begins on 30th March.

More details of the application are on the Mole Valley District Council website. Surrey County Council’s public consultation on the application runs until Thursday January 29th 2015. (The date on the SCC website for the end of the consultation is incorrect.)

Drilling history

December 9th 2008
Europa Oil and Gas Ltd applied for planning permission (MO09/0110) for an exploratory borehole and drill site at Bury Hill Wood, off Coldharbour Lane, Holmwood, Surrey.

30th June 2011
Surrey County Council refused the application.

26th September 2012
A planning inspector dismissed an appeal against refusal by Europa Oil and Gas Ltd.

25th July 2013
Europa successfully challenged the inspector’s decision in the High Court and a judge quashed the inspector’s decision.

19th June 2014
Leith Hill Action Group appealed in the High Court against the judge’s decision but their case was dismissed.

22nd April 2015
Scheduled date for a public inquiry to re-determine the original appeal. Expected to take place at Dorking Halls and last up to eight days.

Plan of the latest application

Surrey County Council note to neighbours

Europa Oil and Gas environmental statement on latest application

Planning Officers’ report on original planning application

Appeal details

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