The Forestry Commission is standing by its decision to allow oil exploration on its land near a popular beauty spot in the Surrey Hills.
DrillOrDrop reported in December that two local councillors had appealed to the organisation and the Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, to scrap an agreement with the drilling company, Europa Oil and Gas.
They argued that the deal was against the Forestry Commission’s mission statement and amounted to a breach of public trust.
But correspondence seen by DrillOrDrop confirms that the agreement with Europa for the site at Bury Hill Wood will continue.
Simon Hodgson, chief executive of Forest Enterprise, said:
“We have no intention of withdrawing from the agreement we have with Europa Oil and Gas to allow them to use the site.”
In a letter to Cllrs Claire Malcomson and Clayton Clayton Wellman, he said agreements like the one with Europa helped to pay the cost of managing the woodlands for the public.
Europa received planning permission in 2015 for an exploratory well and short-term testing for oil near Leith Hill in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the Green Belt.
Mr Hodgson said the UK would use oil and gas for many decades and domestic resources would improve energy security and reduce reliance on imports.
“The Forestry Commission as a Government Department responsible for the delivery of Government policies accepts that there will be occasions where activities such as those proposed at Bury Hill can be accommodated on the Public Forest Estate.
“We have been managing the woodlands in the area for the benefit of locals and visitors alike for many years and this is not without cost.
“Income raised from commercial activities that we consider appropriate and which do not constrain our other activities helps us to continue to provide these benefits into the future.
“The very small area of land directly involved in this case, and the temporary nature of the exploration well on this site, means that we do not consider that it will interfere with our ability to sustainably manage the Public Forest Estate in this area or elsewhere.”
“Neglect of duty and great shame”
Cllr Malcomson and Wellan, who represent the Holmwoods ward on Mole Valley District Council, said they were disappointed by the Forestry Commission’s stance.
“If the FC [Forestry Commission] does not deny this activity in this location, or at the very least ensure it denies a renewal of its current temporary permission, then this is both a neglect of its duty and a great shame.”
They said it was difficult to find land where “statutes were more set against development”.
“If there is an example of a location where industrial development such as this should not be permitted it is this site. It is a very particular site, a very fragile site with incredibly difficult access, a precious and highly protected sited.”
The councillors said access to the site, along a narrow, sunken lane, was inappropriate and Europa’s operations would make it impassable.
They added that the amount of activity, number of journeys by heavy goods vehicles and the 35m high rig on a landmark hill would make a “travesty” of AONB and Green Belt status.
The plans had, they said, been opposed by the Mole Valley District and Surrey County Councils, as well as the local community.
“If the Forestry Commission is truly the steward for the people, then how can it go against the wishes of the local people and their elected representatives in this way?”
They said the costs to the local environment and community would outweigh any benefits of the scheme to the Forestry commission.
People, economy and nature
The mission statement of the Forestry Commission provides for:
“The estate to work with others to keep the Public Forest Estate as a special place for wildlife, for people to enjoy and for businesses to thrive- and achieve this by adopting a strategy that integrates all the three drivers of sustainable land management: People, Economy and Nature”.
Forest Enterprise’s accounts for 2015-2016 said 593 businesses and individuals operated on the public forest estate. One of the national objectives for that year had been to “establish new business opportunities and increase the number of third party businesses operating on public forest land”.
But the plan for Bury Hill Wood, for 2016-2026, has no targets for businesses outside the timber industry.
Two objectives for the wood are to:
- Maintain sustainable access and the provision for recreation within the woodlands, taking opportunities to enhance the experience where appropriate.
- Maintain the landscape character in respect to the important external topography often referred to as “Little Switzerland”.
Of the other objectives, three are about ancient woodland tree species, one about nature conservation habitats and another about providing a regular supply of quality timber for local employment and timber processing industries.
In a consultation on the plan, Clive Smith, the Surrey Hills AONB Planning Adviser, asked the Forestry Commission to
“Use some of any revenue it derives from allowing the permitted oil and gas exploratory drilling at Bury Hill Wood to give greater emphasis in the management of the woodlands to public amenity measures than would otherwise have been the case.”
In its response, the Forestry Commission replied:
“In regards to any revenue derived from oil and gas exploration, we are not able to ring-fence this money and the relative merits of such things are really a planning issue to which representations should be made via the planning process.”