A planning inspector has ruled that the oil and gas company, Europa, should be allowed to carry out exploratory drilling in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Leith Hill in Surrey.
The company had appealed against a refusal of planning permission by Surrey County Council.
But following a public inquiry, the planning inspectorate announced yesterday afternoon that the appeal had been allowed and planning permission granted.
The inquiry lasted eight days, involved four barristers, considered 46 documents and heard from 25 witnesses.
The Planning Inspector, Stuart Nixon, accepted that the development would cause short-term harm but said this would be outweighed by what he called “the reversible nature and the benefits of the scheme in local and national terms”.
More than 20 conditions have been imposed on the application. These include a requirement on the company to clear the site within 18 weeks of starting work and lorries delivering equipment and materials must be fitted with cameras.
Local campaigners from the Leith Hill Action Group said they were disappointed by the result and urged the council to ensure that the conditions were upheld. A company that has invested in the site said the scheme would provide useful information about prospects for oil and gas in the Weald.
The proposed site is just under a hectare in a Forestry Commission plantation at Bury Hill Wood on the edge of Dorking. It is in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belt.
The plans have provoked a long-running legal dispute between Europa Oil and Gas and local residents. This was the second public inquiry since the application was made in 2008. There have also been two court cases. For more details, see Background to the appeal at the bottom of this post.
The Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG) has claimed that the proposed operation was inappropriate development in the Green Belt and would reduce its openness.
Along with Surrey County Council, LHAG also argued that the proposal should be refused because it constituted a major development in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). They said it did not comply with national planning policy because there were no exceptional circumstances and the application was not in the public interest.
The opponents argued that the scheme would have an impact on the landscape and natural beauty and the area. Traffic generated by the site would disturb local residents and disrupt other road users.
Europa argued that the application was consistent with government policy on working oil and gas. It said the impacts would be limited because the proposal was temporary and short-term. The company also maintained that the application was for exploring, not producing, oil and gas at the site and there were no plans to frack.
Details of the scheme
The proposal is to explore for hydrocarbons in the Holmwood Prospect, which is in the licence area PEDL 143. The drilling targets are the Portland and Corallian Sandstones.
The application is for three years and, according to Europa, the main operations would last for a total of 18 weeks.
The company proposed four phases for the project:
- Site preparation (six weeks)
- Drilling (five weeks)
- Testing and evaluation (up to four days)
- Site restoration (six weeks)
The well would be offset (drilled diagonally), which means the bottom would not be vertically below the wellhead. The company has submitted another application to Surrey County Council for a drilling corridor, which identifies the horizontal area under which the well could be drilled. The council has not made a decision on this application.
The Inspector’s ruling
Mr Nixon decided that the application was not inappropriate development in the Green Belt and any impact on openness would be short-term.
He ruled it was not a “major” development in the AONB so the company did not need to show the application was in the public interest or that there were exceptional circumstances to justify it.
He said there would be adverse effects on the landscape and natural beauty of the AONB but the harm would be reversible. Alternative sites outside the AONB could not reach both the Portland and Corallian sandstones with one borehole.
He said traffic generated by the site would “not go unnoticed” by residents and road users but the impact would be “transitory”.
Concerns about the impact on ecology, light pollution, hydrology and the local economy should not count against the application, he said.
He also ruled that the application was consistent with government policy on oil and gas exploitation.
The Inspector’s report ruled that the plans must meet 23 conditions. These include:
- The permission expires on 7th August 2018, three years from the date of the decision
- The site must be cleared within 18 weeks of the start of work
- Work is limited to 7am-6pm Monday-Friday and 7am-1pm on Saturdays
- Work cannot start without written agreement from the county council on dust suppression, ecological monitoring, lighting, soil contamination, landscape restoration, groundwater monitoring, traffic surveying and management, a pre-development condition survey and vehicle wheel-cleaning
- The site must not exceed noise limits on site preparation (55dB), drilling activities (42-45dB) and flaring (53dB)
- All HGVs entering or leaving the site must be escorted
- Entry and exit for site traffic is limited to 9.30am-3pm, apart from two three-day road closures
- All HGVs must be fitted with a camera or CCTV in the cab and this must work at all times in Knoll Road and Coldharbour Lane
Leith Hill Action Group said in a statement:
“We are naturally disappointed at the decision which has been announced. We now look to Surrey County Council to ensure that, if the development proceeds, the Conditions attached to the consent are monitored and enforced so as to minimise the adverse impact on the Surrey Hills AONB and to protect the safety of all road users and residents affected.”
“Europa have been granted planning permission but they must still obtain the permits necessary to be allowed to drill. As such, please do not think that any drilling is imminent. We will aim to keep you informed of the latest status as Europa continue to seek to cross all hurdles.”
“We are grateful to every one of the individuals and organisations that have supported us over the last six and a half years and allowed us to be legally represented at both Public Inquiries and in the Courts. In particular we must thank Mole Valley District Council and the Lush Foundation.”
An investor in the prospect, UK Oil & Gas (which has an interest in the Horse Hill well near Gatwick) welcomed the ruling. Stephen Sanderson, UKOG’s chief executive, said: “We are delighted with the outcome of the planning appeal.”
“The Holmwood well provides the company with a valuable opportunity to leverage our proprietary knowledge and experience of the adjacent Horse Hill discovery to the benefit and future success of the PEDL143 partnership.”
UKOG is expected to pay a 40% share of the Holmwood-1 exploration drilling costs in order to acquire a full 20% working interest in PEDL143. UKOG’s share of well costs will be capped at £1.2 million net, the company said.
Background to the appeal
Europa first applied for planning permission at Bury Hill Wood in 2008. Surrey County Council refused permission in 2011. The company appealed but this was dismissed in 2012 at a public inquiry.
Europa successfully challenged the inquiry’s decision in the High Court in 2013. LHAG challenged this ruling in the Court of Appeal in 2014 but lost.
The second public inquiry was held from 22 April to 1 May and on 11 June 2015. Its decision, issued on 7th August, overrules the findings of the first public inquiry.