Forestry Commission refuses to drop oil drilling deal with Europa near Leith Hill


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.”

12 replies »

  1. “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 ………” WHERE HAVE WE HEARD THAT ONE BEFORE?!

  2. It’s a disgrace! What is going on? All those trees being supported by the Forestry Commission. Don’t they know they should get them all chopped down, converted into pellets and sent to N.Ireland to heat empty sheds, courtesy of the tax payer??
    Anyone could see that is much better than removing a fuel source currently hidden below ground level, out of view to the general public, and offering no amenity to man nor beast in it’s current state! Pass me the magic mushrooms.

  3. “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.”

    So no valid planning objections (including highways), two public inquiries and Planning Permission granted. Just some antis and a couple of Lib Dem Councillors who were on the losing side and don’t want to accept the result of the planning process?

    Well done the Forestry Commission for standing your ground.

  4. Why not pay a visit to the developing Fracking Site at Preston New Road near Blackpool before you decide whether this application will have any effect on your area of outstanding natural beauty?

    • The Preston New Road site is an insignificant construction site building a small well pad. If it was being built for anything else such as housing, wind turbines, slurry pits etc etc there would be no protests. There is no visual impact as such that any amenity is damaged. Hence the award of planning permission, recommended by the Planning experts, refused by the misled by FOE planning non experts (the Planning Committee), recommended after the appeal by the PI and approved by the SOS. Which bit of this don’t you understand? I have built plenty of well sites all over the world and this one is small and insignificant and unobtrusive.

      If you want to see damage go to Scout Moor Wind Farm – if you want to see adverse visual impact on an AONB go to Caton Moor Wind Farm which is 10km inside the FOB AONB (approved by the SOS at the time).

      • An insignificant construction? No visual impact?, Small, insignificant and UNOBTRUSIVE?! Clearly you and I are not looking at the same place. You seem to be allowing your dislike of wind and renewable energy to colour your views.

        • Of course there will be some impact, the only way there is no impact is to do nothing. Read the report from the SOS paragraphs 50 – 57:

          Click to access 16-10-06_DL_Cuadrilla.pdf

          “The Secretary of State has considered the Inspector’s overall conclusions on landscape and visual impact. For the reasons given at IR12.149 -12.15 , he agrees with the Inspector at IR12.152 that although there are landscape impacts that would cause demonstrable harm which cannot be eliminated, they have been reduced to an acceptable level and the development would therefore be in accordance with Policy DM2. He further agrees at IR12.154 that there would be no conflict in the long term with the aim of the NPPF to conserve and enhance the natural environment. For the reasons given at IR12.70 and IR12.155 – 12.156, he agrees with the Inspector at IR12.156 that there would
          be harm arising from the visual impact associated with the development but this has been reduced to an acceptable level such that there would not be conflict with Policy DM2. Overall he agrees with the Inspector’s assessment at IR12.157 that the landscape and visual impacts associated with the scheme would not be unacceptable. ”

          “For the reasons given at IR12.127, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s conclusion that any cumulative landscape and visual effects would be very limited and would certainly not be of any significance.”

  5. Paul Tresto, your comments are very generalised and not applicable to this site. If it was as clear cut a planning decision as you make out, why would the Inspector at the first public Inquiry have refused it? It’s not just ‘planning non experts (the Planning Committee)’, as you put it, who have seen this as a wrongful development.In its locale it will be obtrusive and inappropriate and an AONB site like this should be at the bottom of the list for development, not the top. There are many other places we could source this fossil fuel (even relatively locally) that should be exhausted before we go to the sites that are, in theory, most protected against development. To be honest with you I would have opposed the windfarm in an AONB too. That likewise seems to be breaking the compact of the legal protection given. In this location it is not only the site itself, but also the accessibility which is entirely inappropriate. There is also the threat to the water supply, which is entirely from ground water, a fear raised by Sutton & E.Surrey Water – acid stimulation here poses risks. Of course you’ll tell me the EA will ensure it’s all done correctly etc. One mistake would jeopardise the water supply for 180,000 homes. You compare it to this: ‘The Preston New Road site is an insignificant construction site building a small well pad. If it was being built for anything else such as housing, wind turbines, slurry pits etc etc there would be no protests.’ I can assure you this would not be the case on this site at Leith Hill, all of these things would be unacceptable here – it’s the whole point of the Green Belt and AONB classifications and verified by the District Council, The County Council and the first public inquiry. It’s not just a few losers – it’s almost everyone who is against this.

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