More than seven years of controversial oil exploration in the West Sussex village of Balcombe could be at an end after councillors blocked plans for a well test.
The county council’s planning committee today unanimously refused proposals for the site which saw mass daily protests and arrests during drilling in the summer of 2013.
The vote, against the advice of planning officers, decided the application for a one-year well test was not in the public interest and would have minimal benefit to the local economy.
More than 800 people had objected to the proposal by the site operator, Angus Energy.
The local campaign group, Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association, welcomed the decision. Spokesperson Sue Taylor said:
“This verdict is such a relief. Thanks to all the hard work of so many people is looking positive for Balcombe.”
Balcombe resident Jon Millbanks said:
“We shall be heartily glad to see the back of oil companies in the village
“They have blighted village life for 10 years and threatened us with increased HGV traffic, noise and fumes from drilling and flaring.
“Now the children at our excellent local primary school will not have to put up with idling HGVs spewing out noxious fumes, metres from their classrooms and playground.”
Malcolm Kenward, a resident and supporter of the local renewable energy cooperative, Repower Balcombe, said:
“We’re far better off generating electricity from solar panels than looking for more fossil fuels.
“The world needs to change the way it thinks about how we generate energy.”
In a statement, Angus Energy said it was disappointed with the decision.
“The company is presently evaluating all the options available with its partners”.
At 2.15pm, the share price was down 8% at 0.825p.
Today’s decision is the latest chapter in the saga of oil development in the village. The 2013 protests increased awareness of fracking in the UK and helped to launch a nationwide campaign against the process.
This is the sixth time in just over 10 years that oil companies have sought permission to test the viability of oil production at Balcombe. So far, only a short test has been carried out, in 2018, when unexpected water was found in the well.
Last year, Angus withdrew an application for a three-year test after council planners recommended refusal.
Then officials said the proposal would compromise the protected landscape of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There were no exceptional circumstances that would be needed in planning law to justify consent, they said.
The application decided today shortened the duration of the test to one year and Angus Energy proposed to install a new membrane on the well pad.
But councillors said nothing had changed since last year and there were still no exceptional circumstances to approve the plans.
Unless Angus Energy appeals against the decision, the Balcombe site should now be restored to its previous forestry use.
Villagers question benefits
Angus Energy’s managing director, George Lucan, told today’s online meeting that the well test was a “modest development”. But he estimated that it could bring £800,000 in local benefits.
Oil was an important source of energy and an industrial feedstock, the company said. Impacts of the well test would be minor, temporary and reversible, it added.
Council planners said the well test would contribute to national energy security and supply and the application was in the national interest. They accepted there would be adverse impacts but they could be dealt with by planning conditions.
The meeting heard that a 40m crane would be on site for up to 10 days and 13.8m flare to burn waste gas would be installed for the duration of the well test.
Local people and councillors questioned the planners U-turn.
John Millbanks, speaking to the committee as chair of Balcombe Parish Council, said:
“Considering there have been no material changes in the application, in our opinion, the planning officer has misdirected himself in reaching many of the conclusions in his recommendation
“There are no exceptional circumstances to this application and it is not in the public interest.”
Local people said the test was not needed and claims about local benefits were misleading. The potential contribution to national supply was negligible. They said the costs to the local community and environment in noise, pollution, traffic and impacts on nature far outweighed any benefit.
John Butcher, a Balcombe resident and director of a multinational company, said the application failed to meet the tests of sustainable development. The benefits were overstated, he said. The oil industry in Balcombe had caused physical and mental strain to local people.
“Our community has been weakened and worried since 2012.”
Local mother Rachel Hall told the committee she was speaking on behalf of her son. She said one of her main worries was that lorries going to the site would pass the primary school in the village.
“I have witnessed first-hand the sheer number and size of some of those vehicles when Angus was last on site in 2018. Honestly, they are the length of the school itself
“The school lies directly below the pavement and now, especially due to Covid, the windows in my son’s class open straight out towards that road and every day they play in the small space between the class and the road, so we are naturally concerned about the children’s exposure to pollution.”
Rachel Hall said 20-32 heavy goods vehicles were expected to pass the school, local scout hut, church and play area every day for more than five months.
“it only needs ONE of these to be idling outside the school, because they have to wait there before weaving through the parked cars on the residential London Road, to deliver the children a MASSIVE dose of particulate matter.”
There are no safe limits for particulate matter, she said. It is a potential cause of short and serious long-term illness.
“The planner mentions locals will be ‘adversely affected’, this feels like too big a price to pay.”
The traffic noise would disrupt lessons, she said. During the 2018 flow test, people had been kept awake at night she said.
Gary Marsh, a member of Mid Sussex district Council, said the committee should take into account the government’s green agenda.
Bill Acraman, the local West Sussex County Councillor, quoting from the film Casablanca, said:
“The reasons for doing it are not worth a hill of beans.”
- Plans for a six-month well test at Balcombe in April 2014 was approved by all but one of the planning committee members (DrillOrDrop report)