Surrey’s jewel in the crown needs highest protection, oil drilling inquiry hears

The area around Leith Hill, where an oil company wants to drill, is the jewel in the crown of the Surrey Hills and deserves the highest protection, a public inquiry heard this afternoon.

Planning officer, Clive Smith, said the area was rare in the south east for it tranquillity and feeling of isolation and remoteness. Its scenic beauty was highly valued and it contributed to the quality of life.

Mr Smith, who works for the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, was giving evidence against a proposal by Europa Oil and Gas to drill an exploratory oil well at Bury Hill Wood near Coldharbour.

He said the level and depth of public abhorrence at the proposal was testament to how people valued the area.

Surrey County Council’s planning committee had refused permission for the well, against the recommendation of officers. Europa appealed against the decision but the refusal was upheld. In 2013, the company went to the High Court, which overturned the decision. A new inquiry in Dorking, which began yesterday, is hearing all the evidence again.

Mr Smith said the Surrey Hills deserved the highest level of protection. The AONB’s policy was for strict controls on development and the bar was set extremely high.

“Mole Valley is the jewel in the crown of Surrey and Leith Hill is the jewel in the crown of the Surrey Hills AONB”.

People associated Surrey Hills with a special area that planning would protect from development, he said. If the application were approved, there was a danger that public confidence in the planning system would be undermined.

“The need for the development would have to be so overwhelming and strongly in the public interest in order to outweigh the harm to the AONB.

“In order to be allowed, there would need to be very powerful and exceptional circumstances indeed, including that the exploratory drill site would be clearly in the national public interest and that there is no alternative feasible site outside the AONB.”

He said the drilling site would be incongruous in the proposed setting on a wooded ridge. It would bring no local economic benefits and could even damage the local tourist economy. He believed the impacts could not be mitigated.

Mr Smith supported one of yesterday’s witnesses, the landscape architect, Elizabeth Brown, who said it would take 25 years for the site to be restored to its present appearance. He also agreed with the planning consultant, Paul White, who gave evidence this morning that in planning terms the site amounted to a major development.

Mark Westmoreland Smith, for Europa Oil and Gas, said the impact on the local economy had to be balanced against a national policy of maximising the petroleum resources in the public interest. He said there was a need for hydrocarbons so that people could get to the AONB to enjoy it. He added that the appeal site was a miniscule part of the AONB.

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