Regulation

More delay for Leith Hill oil site as minister rules on security fencing

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The Communities Secretary has ruled that plans for security fencing at Europa’s oil site near the Leith Hill beauty spot in Surrey need a detailed assessment of their impact on the environment.

A planning application due to be considered by Surrey County Council this morning was taken off the agenda because of the ruling. The plans are now unlikely to be decided until June and the delay could be even longer.

Europa said it needed to install security fencing at its site in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to prevent protesters obstructing or occupying the site entrance.

The latest decision by Sajid Javid, released on Monday (20 March 2017), reverses an earlier ruling issued in 2016. The u-turn follows pressure from Leith Hill Action Group, a local group opposed to drilling for oil at the site in Bury Hill Wood.

The group said this week:

“This is a major victory and makes Europa’s path forward difficult, although it certainly isn’t the end of the story for them.”

The group remains concerned about another decision on fencing. This has been made by Surrey County Council planning officers and could come into force tomorrow (23 March 2017). Opponents of drilling at Bury Hill Wood says it could block access to the site for residents and visitors for many months.

Multiple applications

Europa has now submitted five separate planning applications for the Bury Hill Wood site, dating back to the first that was sent to Surrey County Council in December 2008.

The company finally got planning permission for the oil site in August 2015.

The consent was subject to 23 conditions, including one which required the whole operation to last no longer than 18 weeks.

A month later, in September 2015, Europa also received consent for a drilling corridor, the area under which the exploratory oil well would be drilled.

Fencing for 18 weeks

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Protest at the entrance to the Bury Hill Wood site

Europa made its third application in September 2016. This was for 2m high Heras-type security fencing and 3m high deer fencing. The application also included office and welfare accommodation, water and fuel tanks and a generator. It extended the footprint of the application site.

The application stated:

“The proposed development is temporary in nature and would not exceed the 18 weeks permitted by the exploratory wellsite.”

It added:

“The temporary fencing and gates are now necessary to prevent protestors obstructing the Site entrance who could cause delays to the permitted 18 weeks. In order to avoid such delays, the temporary fencing would prevent protestors setting up camp at the Site entrance.”

The Communities Secretary was asked to decide whether the application needed an Environmental Impact Assessment.

On 21 November 2016, he concluded that the fencing was not likely to have “significant effects on the environment”. He said likely impacts had been addressed as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the original application for the well site.

The decision note concluded:

“There is no evidence that the proposed development will result in the exceedance of legal environmental standards and so the Secretary of State considers that significant impacts as a result of the proposals are not likely.

“The Secretary of State does not consider that the relatively small loss of land (some 0.2ha) and the temporary nature of the site fencing and the welfare facilities for an 18 week exploratory phase and the resulting environmental impacts will be significant.

“He concludes that, having assessed the evidence presented, the relatively limited impacts will not, in his view, be considered to be significant.”

Fencing for 52 weeks

A month after the ruling, on 19 December 2016, Europa submitted another application for fencing. This appeared to be identical to the earlier one, except this time the fencing would be in place for 52 weeks.

Surrey County Council concluded in January 2017 that this application needed an environmental impact assessment. Europa appealed against this to the Secretary of State, who ruled again on 21 February 2017.

This time he said:

“the proposal is likely to have significant effects on the environment”.

Ruling in the council’s favour, he said it counted as an EIA development.

“Any application for planning permission for this development must be accompanied by an Environmental Statement.”

Mr Javid concluded

“the construction, operation and decommissioning of the proposed security fencing and welfare facilities has not been fully assessed as part of the wider project and whether this will generate any significant adverse environmental effects that might impact on the heritage sites or landscape status of the site.”

The decision notice added that there was likely to be a significant increase in the use of the road network because of the fencing and welfare facilities, as well as protest activity.

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Protest against drilling at Bury Hill Wood. Photo: Jon O’Houston

U-turn on 18-week fencing

In the meantime, Leith Hill Action Group had been pushing for the Secretary of State to reconsider his decision on the 18-week fencing application.

On Monday 20 March 2017, the Secretary of State changed his mind.

He concluded that the proposal would have significant environmental effects and directed that it needed an environmental impact assessment.

LHAG said:

“We are very pleased to see the Secretary of State agree with us that the extensive additional industrialisation requested by Europa requires a new Environmental Impact Assessment before it be granted.

“We believe that the proposed extension of the site area by 29% (taking it over the threshold size for “major development”) combined with fencing that will now make the site visible from general public areas is such a large change to the nature of the development that the Inspector at the Planning Inquiry would have refused planning permission if it had been part of the original application.

“Europa should either move ahead with their development in its 2015 approved form or they should make a fresh application from scratch to include any additional industrialisation they feel is necessary.”

DrillOrDrop asked Europa to comment on Mr Javid’s decision. We will update this post with any response.

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Imminent local concerns about more fencing plans

Europa has also applied to install a 1.1m reptile fence in an area of 0.016ha at the Bury Hill Wood site. This has yet to be considered by Surrey County Council’s planning committee.

But yet another set of fencing has been approved, without even going before the committee, and this is concerning residents.

Planning officers have given the go-ahead for groundwater monitoring boreholes at Bury Hill Wood, required as a condition in the original planning permission for the site.

The boreholes themselves are not controversial. But the plans for them include Heras fencing around the borehole locations, a portacabin and round-the-clock on-site staffing.

The boreholes’ project was approved under what is known as permitted development, without the need for a planning application or public consultation. On 16 March 2017, the council confirmed these plans did not need an environmental impact assessment.

The approval allows for security fencing to be installed for a total of ten months, starting six months before drilling. As well as the fencing, the project would close the access track and make a large part of the drill site inaccessible, opponents say. Under the approval, Europa could begin work tomorrow (23 March 2017).

Leith Hill Action Group has sought a screening direction about why these plans do not need an Environmental Impact Assessment. Some councillors have asked why the borehole project has not been treated as a standard planning application and opened up to public consultation.

Restoration plan

Today’s meeting of Surrey’s planning committee approved a landscape restoration plan for Bury Hill Wood.

The plan, which is designed to deliver a five-year programme of aftercare, was another condition required by the original planning permission.

Cllr Susan Watson, who represents the Bury Hill Wood area, said the plan had to be enforceable for the full five years.

Committee member, Cllr Mary Angell, described the wording as “very loose” and said it should state specifically who was responsible for the after care. She said:

“This is an important site. We need to be absolutely clear.”

Council officers said it was not possible to assign responsibility in the plan because planning permission went with the land, not an individual.

Key facts, timeline and links for Bury Hill Wood

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