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.”
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”.
- 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.”