The government is being urged to block a land agreement that will allow exploratory drilling for oil near the Leith Hill beauty spot in Surrey.
Two councillors have written to the Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, saying she has the power to revoke a lease signed by the Forestry Commission with Europa Oil & Gas.
Cllrs Claire Malcomson and Clayton Wellman said drilling on the forestry site at Bury Hill Wood in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty would amount to a “breach of the public trust”.
In a letter to Mrs Leadsom and the Forestry Commission director, Ian Gambles, sent today the councillors said:
“You, in your individual roles, and the FC [Forestry Commission] are stewards of the land. The land is ours, everybody’s. It belongs to the people of this nation.
“The lease for these activities is entirely in your gift. You have the power to revoke it and to deny any further leasing of FC land for hydrocarbon exploration or extraction. The will is all that is required.”
“Breach of trust”
The councillors, who represent the Holmwood ward for the Lib Dems on Mole Valley District Council, said the lease contradicted the objectives of the Paris climate agreement, as well as UK policy, the Forestry Commission’s mission statement and the interests of the local community.
“Any lease of [Forestry Commission] land for industry other than recreation or forestry itself is essentially wrong and a breach of the public trust.
“The risks and damage that could, and will, be unleashed by such actions fly in the face of the covenant between the Government, the [Forestry Commission] FC and the people.
“It simply does not make sense what the FC is prepared to allow on its land, and these activities entirely contradict its purpose.”
The site, known by the oil industry as Holmwood-1, is near the village of Coldharbour, on the edge of Dorking. A planning inspector granted permission last year after a long-running dispute between the company on one side and local residents and Surrey County Council on the other.
Europa is currently negotiating with the council over conditions for its planning permission. It has also applied for an extension to the site and extra security fencing. Opponents of drilling have established a camp at the site.
People “overwhelmingly against” drilling
Cllr Wellman and Malcomson said in their letter:
“Neither of us has come across one person in our immediate community, nor in the wider area, who is in favour of the activity that has been permitted. We, the people, are overwhelmingly against this type of use of FC land.”
They said oil exploration contradicted the purposes of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
“[The proposed activities on the site] threaten all aspects of the AONB status and designation. The proposal is unwanted by the community, it brings no benefits to those who live and work in the area and it will destroy the peace and opportunity for quiet enjoyment. It is obvious to see that rather than conserve and enhance, it will destroy, pollute and degrade. In short, the application is not suitable for this location whatsoever.”
One of the conditions of the planning permission is that the work last for no more than 18 weeks.
But the letter argued:
“The entire purpose of this application is to gain a foothold to then develop a long term drilling site.”
The councillors urged Mrs Leadsom:
“Please be a leader instead of cow-towing to this outdated and destructive industry, ever more desperate to bleed our land dry. Please stand up for your core principles as the FC and as Secretary for the Environment. Please stand up for our international pledges and show they mean something. And above all, please do what is right and proper, uphold the public trust and safeguard our land as promised.”
Forestry Commission leases
DrillOrDrop asked the Forestry Commission about the criteria it used to decide when to lease its land for non-forestry activities. A spokesperson said:
“The Public Forest Estate has been let for a large variety of non-forestry activities in its 100 year history including traditional oil and mineral extraction. We consider the impacts on the forest and final decisions on Planning Applications are made by the relevant the Planning Authority. In this case the exploration activity is only approved for a temporary period.”
Asked about the value and duration of the lease, the spokesperson said:
“The first lease for exploration ran from 2013-2015; the current lease runs from 2015 to 2018. The rent paid is exempt from disclosure under Section 12(5)(e) of the Environmental Information Regulations “Confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest.”