A planning expert told a public inquiry into plans to drill for oil near Leith Hill in Surrey there was no compelling need for the development.
Paul White, a planner with the consultancy Atkins, said any oil found would represent a very small percentage of UK onshore hydrocarbons and would make only a small contribution to the UK economy.
Giving evidence this morning, Mr White said: “The potential local economic benefits from the proposed development would be insignificant and the disbenefits of refusing permission would be likewise.”
“There is no compelling need to exploit the Holmewood prospect”, he said. When asked what weight should be given to the need to drill for oil in the area, Mr White said “negligible”.
The second day of the inquiry in Dorking has been hearing Surrey County Council’s defence of its refusal of planning permission for the exploration site.
Europa Oil and Gas had applied to drill a borehole at Bury Hill Wood, which is part of the Green Belt and in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. For background see our post here.
Mr White said the proposed site was against local planning policy and would have a “significant adverse effect” on the landscape and natural beauty of the area.
He said there would also be an adverse impact on the amenity of local people. Heavy goods vehicles delivering to the proposed site would park in Knoll Road and then travel in convoys of three along Coldharbour Lane. During site preparation and decommissioning, this would lead to traffic diversions.
Mr White said the proposed drilling site met the criteria, in planning terms, for a major development. The National Planning Policy Framework says major developments in AONBs should be refused except in exceptional circumstances or where it was in the public interest. But he thought it was appropriate development for the Green Belt because it was short-term and the impacts reversible.
Leith Hill Action Group, which argues that the site is inappropriate for the Green Belt, challenged Mr White. LHAG’s barrister, Stephen Whale, asked how long the site would need to operate to compromise the openness of the Green Belt and to be encroachment on the countryside.
Mr White said that during the operation of the site there would be encroachment and a loss of openness but he added that the site was temporary and in the long-term the Green Belt policy would be adhered to. “There is a need to take long term view, rather than a short term view”, he said.
Andrew Newcombe, for Europa Oil and Gas, drew attention to the original report by planning officers, which recommended approval and concluded there was a need for the development. He put it to Mr White that domestic oil was more secure than imported supply and was also more environmentally friendly. Mr White agreed.
Mr Newcombe quoted parliamentary comments by the previous energy minister Greg Barker (2010-2014) that the government sought “full economic recovery” of domestic hydrocarbons. Mr Newcombe suggested to Mr White that this meant that there was no reason to not exploit small reserves of oil.
Mr White said the government had to take into account a range of factors, including the environmental impacts and safety.
Mr Newcombe suggested that one of yesterday’s witnesses, landscape architect, Elizabeth Brown, may have over-estimated the impact of the proposed site on the AONB because her landscape assessment had looked at a timescale of 0-5 years.
Mr White said “My understanding is that the assessment she [Mrs Brown] has made is on the basis of 18 weeks of activity and then restoration. The way she has assessed these impacts is soundly based and I can rely on it.”
Mr Newcombe also questioned Mr White’s conclusion that the drilling site would have an impact on residential amenity. He said officials had not objected to the original application on noise, air quality or highway grounds.
Mr White said amenity was difficult to quantity because it included qualitative factors, such as visual intrusion, the impact on the street scene and general pleasantness.
The inquiry continues this afternoon and is expected to last until 1st May.
Day 1 reports