Legal

Dunsfold drilling plans to be decided again after refusal ruled “invalid”

200629 Dunsfold meeting

Members of Surrey County Council’s first virtual planning meeting refuse plans to drill at Dunsfold, 29 June 2020. Photo: Surrey County Council webcast

The decision to refuse planning permission for oil and gas exploration near the Surrey village of Dunsfold has been ruled invalid following problems during a “remote” council meeting.

Five weeks ago, councillors voted by six votes to five against plans by UK Oil & Gas plc (UKOG) to drill and test vertical and sidetrack wells, overruling the recommendation of council planning officers.

The meeting was the first remote session of the committee, where members took part by video link from home.

The live feed of the meeting repeatedly dropped out and one member of the committee could not be heard.

The application will now be brought back to a future meeting of the planning committee – probably on 17 September – to be decided again

In correspondence today, the council’s monitoring officer, Paul Evans, said there was:

“a significant likelihood that the irregularities arising from the technical difficulties at the meeting on 29 June 2020 render the resolution to refuse invalid and would render any notice of refusal unlawful.

“The most appropriate and fairest course of action is to take the application back to committee. This is what the Council has decided to do.”

Mr Evans added:

“In the circumstances the Council will in due course resubmit the application to the Planning and Regulatory Committee to be redetermined afresh with full entitlement given to members of the public and the applicant to make or remake their statements orally and with full provision for debate by members.”

A spokesperson for UKOG said:

“We welcome the chance to restate why the low-impact Loxley project is of material local and national economic importance, is fully compliant with Net Zero, and presents minimal local business, local highway and environmental impacts.

“We trust that the 17 September re-run will result in a decision fully commensurate with the facts presented, natural law and fair democratic process.”

A spokesperson for Protect Dunsfold, which opposes UKOG’s plans, said:

“Obviously we would prefer that this decision had stood but it is clear from the statement issued by Surrey that this has been referred back on legal advice because of technical problems on the day.

“We have every reason to expect that the Committee reaches the same decision for the same planning policy reasons when it is referred back to Committee and we see no reason why it shouldn’t do so.”

200513 View from site to High Billinghurst Farm 2

View from the proposed site towards High Billinghurst Farm. Photo: High Billinghurst Farm

Investigation

UK Oil & Gas plc complained to the council that there had been deficiencies in the decision-making process at the meeting and asked for the application to be redetermined. DrillOrDrop understands there were also complaints from members of the public.

The complaints included:

  • The live stream of the meeting dropped out
  • Part of a speech by a councillor in favour of the plans may not have been heard by participants
  • A councillor speaking in favour may not have been heard by another councillor who was “waiting in the lobby” to access the meeting
  • A councillor could not be heard and had to use hand gestures and the private chat function to register his vote. He also appeared to be away from this screen at one point during the meeting.
  • Some councillors were helped by people who were not members of the committee

On some of these complaints, the council’s barrister concluded the meeting may have breached regulations:

“these were issues of greater concern, particularly given the close vote by which the resolution was passed.”

Surrey’s planning procedures require committee members to decline to vote unless they were present when an item was discussed. Under the remote meeting regulations, members are not deemed to be present unless they could hear and be heard.

The barrister said:

“There were times during the consideration of the application at the meeting when members would not be considered to be in attendance as a matter of law.”

One councillor may also have been deterred from seeking the opportunity to speak because of problems with the technology.

The barrister concluded:

“there was a significant likelihood that a Court would declare the resolution as invalid and unlawful, not least in light of the clear consequences of the Regulations.”

Other issues raised in complaints were “not necessarily fatal on their own”, the barrister said, but “would not help the impression that would be received if the matter went to Court”.

These included:

  • Lack of a summary of the salient points of the debate before the decision
  • Occasions where other household members appeared on screen with councillors, leading to potential suspicion of inappropriate influence from people not attending the meeting
  • Councillors used a private chat function to pass messages to each other during the meeting

The barrister said:

“Whilst it may well be the case that family members were simply assisting with the technology, there is the risk of a perception of unfairness.”

The investigation dismissed complaints that specific councillors breached the council’s code of conduct and planning protocols. The barrister concluded:

“All issues raised were due to the meeting being undertaken remotely with members being at home in the proximity to other household members to assist in the use of IT equipment or due to technical errors with equipment.

“This was a new experience for members and it is appropriate that if members found themselves in a position where it could appear there were alleged breaches of the code/protocol, that these be addressed with further training in how remote meetings must be conducted rather than any formal investigation.”

 

29 replies »

  1. Once again, only a partial reporting of the information. The full findings are available and provides a great deal more information-some of it quite important. However the next round goes it will be based upon the full findings. If not, it will turn out very expensive.

    • Anything missed would have to be a relevant material planning consideration that had not already been covered. More information may make more Councillors reject the application with additional reasons for refusal. More costings for UKOG if they went to appeal.

    • Hi Martin

      The aim of a reporter is to summarise a situation, and so inevitably some detail is omitted. Or by partial do you mean biased?

      Usually we would provide a link to the source material, but in this case it comes from a letter which some recipients have chosen to share with us or with others..

      So, if you have spotted some “quite important” information which has been omitted from Ruth’s report, it would be great if you could share it via the comments section.

      Regarding your later comment that DrillOrDrop “didn’t seem to know” that an investigation was underway, we were aware of bulletin board chat to that effect but were waiting for confirmation from the council before publishing.

      • I think you will find that the investigation was underway Paul, and THEN some time later the outcome of the investigation was made known.

        The first part of that could have easily been covered some while ago. It has been for many other subjects by DoD. Indeed, it has been known to have numerous summaries around the same subject prior to confirmation!

        Not expecting DoD to pick up on everything but in this instance it was not just bulletin board chat, but a failure to show this matter had been decided from SCC’s own site plus correspondence being in the public domain from SCC stating an investigation was underway.

        Anyway, not long until 17th September. Gives a bit more time for some to understand what they have been told.

      • Hi Paul

        Is this Drill or drop being inconsistent again.

        After reading your reply to Martin I & bearing in mind this D or Drop article

        Isle of Wight drilling: 1,740 objections but AONB says “no direct impact”
        BY RUTH HAYHURST ON JULY 28, 2020 • ( 43 COMMENTS )

        that you were not prepared to wait for the planning officers council’s report for which with updated IOW council figures still only has 848 objections not your stated 1740.

        I find your reply to Martin inconsistent, bias & I would be surprised if many did not find it down right dishonest.

        But what else can we expect, from the perspective that drill or drop operate from all seems to be fair in love & war.

        • Hi MH

          Thanks for your comment, though I’m puzzled on which part of my reply might be “downright dishonest”.

          Regarding inconsistency of reporting, we have to agree to differ on this – worth noting that Don’t Drill the Wight put out a press release which Ruth reported on, stating clearly that this was the source for her piece. In contrast, the council took a while to confirm that an investigation into the Dunsfold decision was taking place.

          If you feel something is being omitted you are, of course, free to post it in a comment which will appear below the piece, or draw it to our attention via the Contacts page.

          Back to IoW, and on the council website, many of the objecting comment titles are not marked with the word “object” or “objection”. So if you do a search on this page, you will find the word object now turns up 937 times. However, open one of the comments not marked with object, and the chances are that you will find this uncounted comment is an objection.

          Don’t Drill the Wight have opened each comment and classified it. These include email and post submissions which are scanned in by the council, but often take a while to appear on the portal. The latest figures they have are: Support 64, Object 2073, Neutral 3 – a total of 2140. At their last analysis there were 2291 documents in total on the site – the remainder comprise UKOG documents, responses from consultees, site notice and 87 duplicated documents, which appear to have been downloaded to the portal twice.

          Once the Planning Officer’s report is published, you will be able to see how accurate these figures are.

  2. Catch up jP. Not a case of what was missed. The Planning Officer made it quite clear what things should not be missed as did the Legal Officer.

    So, SCC have had to fund this first investigation. Perhaps they would like to fund an appeal and the consequences, perhaps they would like to fund an investigation brought by investors?

    Not to worry, jP. As you seem to think that worthwhile, I am sure you would crowd fund the consequences! LOL, just like you did in Lincolnshire.

    “Protectors” of the community? No, as at Wressle, impoverishers of the community. Never have so many been ripped off by so few.

  3. Does that mean that a Councillor who couldn’t vote because of technical difficulties can vote in the next one? If so looking forward to more against votes😀

  4. Nope, Paula C.

    Perhaps they will add a few more to add some expertise? J.R. Ewing for starters.

  5. [Edited by moderator]

    I did not predict what outcome would result, I just suggested that common sense indicated there would be an investigation. There was, even though DoD didn’t seem to know it was going on. That investigation was pretty certain to have come to the conclusions that it has.

    [Edited by moderator]

    And, my common sense, would now indicate that a barristers advice will be added to that of the Planning Officer and Legal Officer. All of which can be ignored but Russian Roulette with more chambers loaded is a very dangerous game.

  6. Thanks for such a comprehensive and quick article on this sorry situation. Surrey CC certainly have made a right mess of this application since the very beginning in 2019 and it’s not getting any better. I hope the objectors can mount a strong defence against UKOG this one more time. They deserve to win IMHO.

    • Well, Sarah, you are correct about the mess, but it will not get better until SCC operate according to the rules around planning. If they do not, they and the community will pay the consequences. The details of the investigation were provided yesterday. There will be some internal stuff within SCC around this, and that will be key going forward.

      Don’t worry, your investment in alternative energy will probably still be safe. What? You have none? Just like I have no shares in UKOG. So, neither of us has a financial motive, so neither can take the moral high ground based upon nothing? Interesting how those not against can have imaginary selfish motives, but those against can not. I think they call it deflected guilt. Meanwhile, we will both continue to use fossil fuel and/or the by products. I will still prefer as much as possible comes from a local source. You obviously want something different. IMHO that makes one of us selfish.

  7. So Martin, I hope your confidence extends to calculating and guaranteeing the bond for the ckean up ? Now it is clear that the regulator expects minerals planning authorities to extract this to cover costs up front – I hope this will be part of your next fundraising effort.

  8. So Martin, can we look forward to a substantial bond being lodged with the minerals and planning authority to cover remediation costs? Naturally there is concern that UKOG could claim lack of success as a reason to abandon & neglect the site.

    • Except, ban, UKOG have not claimed anything of the sort in the past, but have re-instated sites when no longer required.

      So, you may be concerned but based upon previous practice of UKOG it is not natural, but based upon no previous issue.

      I have read about a lot of “concerns” on DoD regarding UKOG such as the one you mention, such as water contamination-and many more. But, in respect of UKOG, they are fiction. They have a good history of compliance and I am sure such concerns can very easily be addressed to them and satisfied.

      Perhaps instead of community payment you would prefer they place the money for re-instatement?

  9. Sarahrook2010

    You sound like many [edited by moderator] on this site who have a stated aim of wanting a net zero carbon emissions by 2050 which is government policy. When UKOG has the same aim & is part of that government process you & people like you are all up in arms. Why is that?

    Is it because you have not understood that this I is how carbon emissions will be reduced as by producing indigenous oil & gas instead of importing it, due to the frameworks that UKOG have to work within it will have a net minus carbon emissions effect & gas from Dunsfold will be turned in hydrogen which when used will turn to water with no pollution & gases produced in oil production are now producing renewable energy ( electricity) for the national grid through a gas to wire system.

    Or is it simply a NIMBY attitude and you couldn’t care less as long as it may s not near you?

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