This post has news updates from the opening session of the public inquiry into plans by UK Oil & Gas plc to drill exploratory gas wells near the village of Dunsfold in Surrey.
The county council refused planning permission for the site, known as Loxley, in November 2020. The council said it would have unacceptable impact
This is not a verbatim report. Please let us know about any mistakes or misinterpretation.
11.48 Kirsty Clough, Weald Action Group
Ms Clough challenges assertions made by UKOG’s planning consultant that UK National Energy Policy establishes a strategic need for further onshore exploration of conventional hydrocarbons.
She says the onshore sector is “barely referred to” in the 2020 Energy White Paper, which presents the latest thinking on the development of energy policy.
She says her local MP, Jeremy Hunt, had asked the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to identify Government statements or policy documents setting out what the Government would regard as its current energy policy relating to UK. The documents he received all related to the North Sea, Ms Clough says.
There was no mention of the strategic importance or the need for of onshore conventional oil and gas exploration in current energy policy, she says.
“previous government support for onshore fossil fuel exploration stemmed from the possibility of exploiting the potentially extensive unconventional onshore fossil fuel resource.
The extraction of these resources has now been ruled out, at least in the short term, by the 2019 moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. This moratorium appears to have marked the end of the UK government’s strategic interest in the onshore oil and gas sector.”
In his response, David Elvin, for UKOG, says the latest version of the National Planning Policy Framework, published last week, lays out the policy.
Asked by the inspector if she was talking about fracking, Ms Clough says the extraction of oil from the Kimmeridge formation might need unconventional techniques.
11.56am: Darcey Finch
Ms Finch says she wants to speak on behalf of the younger generation.
“The past month we’ve seen the results of the changes in the climate. Flooding, heatwaves, fires and droughts.
“We must take the needs of the Planet seriously. Exploration for oil and gas, whether found or not, is the beginnings to a destructive cycle that we must break out of. The UK are leading the way in becoming carbon neutral and however it’s dressed up, digging up more fossil fuels does not reflect the commitments that have been made for our futures.”
She says it is 100 days until the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
“It is just the wrong time in history to start searching for more fossil fuels.”
She says in 50 years, people have “wiped out 68% of global wildlife populations”.
Our own life on earth is threatened, she says.
“Respecting and protecting our planet isn’t something we need to do for the beauty or the moral responsibility from one species to another, although this is the very thing that Surrey prides itself on, but It’s the toolbox to the function of our society. It is the fundamental piece of the puzzle to make clean water, clean air, food production and more.”
Everything people do has an impact, she says.
“We now have to start balancing the impacts and decide which ones are having the worst implications. Unquestionably it is fossil fuels by a very long way.”
12.00pm: Tom Gordon
Mr Gordon, who runs a wedding venue at High Billinghurst Farm, says the council meeting which discussed permission for UKOG’s Dunsfold drilling scheme was told that that economic impacts were not grounds for refusal.
“I strongly disagree with this view and consider that this issue is highly relevant”, he says.
He says UKOG’s site selection report does not acknowledge the presence of the wedding venue that is “highly sensitive to impacts” close to it. So this was not taken into account at all or adequately, Mr Gordon says.
An alternative site at Wildwood was “discounted due to its proximity to the Wildwood golf course”, he says.
The first time UKOG visited his home, on 30 January 2019, the company said it had already selected the Dunsfold site, Mr Gordon says.
The inquiry had heard earlier that UKOG advised the inspector against seeing the proposed drilling site from Mr Gordon’s viewpoint. But the council had chosen this view for a pre-inquiry visit because it must have felt it was relevant to the inquiry.
Mr Gordon says:
“The wider perspective from our home and wedding venue offers spectacular views across beautiful, rural countryside, with undulating pastures and woodland against the backdrop of the Surrey Hills, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”
He says UKOG’s planning witness compares the Dunsfold site to the company’s other sites at Broadford Bridge and Horse Hill. He says:
“The appeal site cannot be compared to those sites, firstly due to the presence of our wedding venue business and other local businesses that would be adversely affected by the proposed development. And secondly neither is sited in an Area of Great Landscape Value or in close proximity to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Surely these designations must count for something and have been made in order to protect the land from unnecessary and damaging industrialisation such as this?
Mr Gordon says the inquiry is happening when the trees and hedgerows are in full leaf, offering greater visual protection to the proposed drilling site.
“I therefore would ask that you to consider how different this landscape will be during the winter and spring time, when there are no leaves or light cover on the trees, and it’s extremely likely that Burchett’s Wood will have been felled, leaving the proposed site fully exposed to and from the AONB, like a gaping wound on the landscape.”
Mr Gordon says the approach to his property down High Loxley Road sets the scene and fills clients with “excitement by anticipation”. It is like stepping back in time, he says.
“A single track rural lane, meandering through pastures and rolling countryside edged with hedgerows, trees, and wild flowers – no white lines, no signposts, no lights.”
He says the approach to the “idyllic rural location” with views to Hascombe Hill in the AONB are “key features” that set his business apart form many others.
“First impressions are extremely important in this business as they set the tone for the whole event so please do not underestimate the importance of this aspect.”
Mr Gordon says:
“There is no doubt that considerably widening High Loxley Road… enough to accommodate two passing HGVs… the removal and replacement of hedgerows and trees with over 50 metres of security fencing and gates, traffic controls, signage and artificial lighting, will completely destroy the rural character and tranquillity of our approach, creating an intensely negative first and last impression for any client that comes to view our venue.”
This will be exacerbated by the “undoubtable presence of protesters and police.
“for anyone considering to invest as much as £180,000 on creating the perfect wedding day, this initial impression would, without question, rule us out as a potential location, even before they have actually arrived at the venue itself.”
Mr Gordon describes the damage to High Loxley Road as “nothing less than catastrophic.
Any future reinstatement of hedgerows and trees would take many years to establish, he says.
The current entrance to the site is from a blind bend with four approaches and a steep, sharp incline into a single track narrow lane, he says.
Mr Gordon says the drilling site perimeter is 328m from his home and less than 100m from his boundary.
His venue is attractive because regulations now allow weddings to be held outdoors, he says.
He doubts whether couples would want their wedding day overshadowed by “an industrial exploratory oil and gas site running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, emitting constant noise and light, with the risk of foul-smelling and possibly toxic gases being released”.
Mr Gordon adds:
“Our rural setting will be ruined, which will have an immediate and devastating impact on our business, our reputation and our livelihood, together with many of the other business that all help to support and provide services for the weddings that we hold here, and that cater to the needs of the attending guests.”
He says outdoor weddings at his venue can accommodate 250 guests. It is licensed to hold up to 75 events a year, many of them take place on Fridays.
They expected to attract 11,000 visiting guests from all over the country and the world. “Huge revenue is generated for the local businesses that service the needs of these visiting guests, many of whom will often stay for several days if not weeks, particularly if they have travelled from abroad”, he says.
The business generates about £4m a year for businesses and suppliers that support weddings, he says.
“Permitting this application will not only severely impact our business, but many, many others locally.”
It has the opportunity to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and flourish.
Mr Gordon concludes:
“I would therefore urge you sir to please visit our venue as part of your site visit in August and consider this when making your decision, and refuse this speculative application in search of more fossil fuels, because the adverse impacts clearly outweigh any possible benefit.”
David Elvin QC, for UKOG, says Mr Gordon refused access to High Billinghurst Farm.
Mr Gordon replies the purpose of the company’s visit was to undermine his concerns.
12.35pm: Ashley Herman
Mr Herman, who also lives near the proposed UKOG site, says the company wants its wellpads to have “minimal impact”. He quotes the chief executive, Stephen Sanderson as saying that the sites affect the local community and would be aware of effect on local landscape.
UKOG considered 23 sites in the area, Mr Herman says. A willing landowner would be a major factor in favour of Dunsfold he says. But he says the site is in the centre of a community, including a traveller community, which had been overlooked.
Mr Herman says his farm supports local businesses. UKOG says its site was 350m away. But he had measured it and it was 237m.
UKOG said local woodland would screen its site but this was a crop that would be clear felled, exposing the wellpad.
Councillors who refused the UKOG application had not been able to visit the site and relied on drone footage, Mr Herman says.
UKOG’s proposals were already affecting a local garden village, he says. No-one will wish to purchase a home above a wellsite, that could include fracking. UKOG’s activity was turning up in searches.
Conclusions that there were no “other economic impacts” overlooked local businesses, including a cancer awareness festival attended by 1000 a day, he says.
This and other events contributed £175,000 locally to local economy, Mr Herman adds.
He also runs a rural brewery and this would be put on hold by drilling. Mr Herman says he can’t be sure that UKOG’s activities wouldn’t be polluting.
UKOG has said its proposal would contribute to the local economy. But Mr Herman says the company would spend money on specialist equipment that was not available locally.
The company has said its operations would keep a local farm active. But Mr Herman says the field to be used by the wellsite was bought just before UKOG signed the licence to explore for oil and gas in the area.
Mr Herman says at night noise levels are very quiet, falling to 19db. UKOG has said night-time noise would reach up to 45dB. During drilling, this would be 24 hours a day for up to 30 weeks. It was a threat to health, Mr Herman says. And three years is not temporary, he says.
On air quality, Mr Herman says the risk from the site was a major concern for the traveller community, as were light levels at night.
Mr Herman says Surrey County Council planning officers had been reluctant to allow objections on adverse economic impact.
He says statements about the need for the site and the projections for production were inconsistent. The site’s contribution would be insignificant, he says, the harm far outweighing any good.
“I don’t want fossil fuels being extracted 240 m from my bedroom.”
Mr Herman says a bond should be required of UKOG if planning permission were granted. The company had accumulated losses and it relied on shareholders for finance. It was a very high risk business, he says. There must be doubt that UKOG could pay for site restoration, he says.
“I don’t not wish to living next to an abandoned well site.”
Responding to Mr Herman, David Elvin QC, for UKOG, says the traveller community had been considered, particularly for noise and other impacts.
Stephen Hayward, Dunsfold Parish Council
Mr Hayward says aside from traffic management issues and the impact on local businesses, the council’s main objections were climate emergency and energy security. These are key, he says. The application should be rejected on these grounds alone.
11.29am: Opening statement – Waverly Borough Council and Alford Parish Council
Patrick Arthurs is representing Waverley Borough Council and Alford Parish Council in the appeal, as an interested (“Rule 6”) party.
While Waverley Borough Council supported the refusal of the application by Surrey County Council, they argue that the refusal didn’t take some planning issues into account. They believe that, at its heart, this is a simple appeal, he says
The key issues are acceptability of impact on the landscape and concerns over highway safety, he says.
The highways solution, says Mr Arthurs, is not practicable or deliverable. Encroachment onto grass verges, which is common land, has not been sought and is unlikely to be granted.
On landscape, there is a strong relationship between the appeal site and the Surrey Hills AONB, says Mr Arthurs. Planning policies say that development should seek to minimise adverse impact.
The council’s landscape specialist John-Paul Friend has identified a conflict with three particular landscape qualities:
- Extensive panoramic views
- Areas of High tranquillity
- Rural land adjoining the AONB
Mr Friend has identified some areas in the AONB where the visual impact will be “significantly adverse” and contrary at some points to the appellant’s findings, says Mr Arthurs.. It will not be possible to mitigate the effects due to the height of the rig and 24 hour lighting.
“The substantive adverse landscape and visual effects associated with this scheme are a reason to withhold planning permission in this case”
Rising renewables are reducing gas demand, and the 2020 white paper aims for a move away from fossil fuels. The need for this site is not justified, and the site selection process is not robust.
Economic benefits have been overstated by the applicant, said Mr Arthurs. There will be negative impacts on established businesses and a potential loss of several million to the local economy.
Accidents could lead to pollution of the water course. Further details are needed on how contamination will be dealt with.
The proposed operations will encroach on Dunsfold aerodrome, said Mr Arthurs, with a horizontal well being drilled below the new housing estate there. Searches by potential buyers are showing warnings of mining activity in the area.
11.22am: Opening statement – Surrey County Council
Jenny Wigley QC for Surrey County Council says the UKOG application to drill near Dunsfold was refused for two reasons:
- It had not been demonstrated that the highway network was of an appropriate standard for use by traffic generated by the development or that the traffic generated by the development would not have a significant adverse impact on highway safety.
- It has not been demonstrated that the applicant has provided information sufficient for the County Planning Authority to be satisfied that there would be no significant adverse impact on the appearance, quality and character of the landscape and any features that contribute towards its distinctiveness, including its designation as an Area of Great Landscape Value.
These are contrary to Policies MC 15 and MC14 of the Surrey Minerals Plan Core Strategy
She says the proposed site is that “the site is inherently unsuitable for this type of development”.
“It is in a designated Area of Great Landscape Value [AGLV] and in the setting of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty [AONB].
“Both of these designations indicate the high value of the landscape within which the site is located and the high sensitivity of the landscape to change.
“The planning policy protection against incongruous development in this type of location is high.”
Ms Wigley adds:
“There are sensitive residencies and businesses nearby which will be adversely affected, along with the users of many recreational routes both within the AONB and the AGLV
She says the cumulative effect of changes throughout the proposed development need to be taken into account to “understand the extent of harm”.
“Extensive highway work”
Ms Wigley says
“The extent of works necessary to make access feasible for the very large vehicles that need to access the site is an indicator of the site’s inherent unsuitability.
“Extensive highway works are required in order to make space for the vehicles at the Pratts Corner junction and, even then, some vehicles will need to undertake reversing manoeuvres just to turn the corner. The works will involve narrowing of verges and road widening and will result in physical disruption and an urbanising effect detracting from the appearance of a rural junction on the boundary of the AONB.”
She says during various periods of the development traffic signals and banksmen will be needed just to enable traffic get to the site.
Hedgerows and other significant vegetation must be removed to make the site entrance.
“Alien and discordant”
“the introduction of utilitarian security cabin, gates and fencing and a passing place for HGVs” will change the rural character of a single track rural lane, which is “a valued, sensitive link between important recreational routes”, she says.
“The use of the site access itself by HGVs trundling across an open field in plain view from the AONB will be discordant in the landscape.”
The site development will involve extensive earthworks, structures and fencing that are all alien and uncharacteristic, she says.
“The height and scale of proposed vertical structures, including rigs and a crane will stand out beyond any existing tree cover and will adversely affect visual amenity, and views from the AONB.#
“All this, coupled with the industrial activity and required night time lighting, will detract from the tranquil and intimate character of the area.”
A description that the proposed development would be a “seriously incongruous visual feature” cannot realistically be disputed, she says.
Ms Wigley describes the information provided by UKOG as “patchy and inadequate”.
There has been no proper assessment of winter views or what would happen if woodland at Burchetts and Loxley Furze were felled.
The effects would be experienced for at least three years, she says and the impacts on some “highly sensitive receptors” would be “significantly adverse”.
Ms Wigley says the mitigation proposed by UKOG will be “shown to be inadequate to ameliorate the effects of the development during its lifetime and will itself introduce incongruous impacts into the landscape.”
Ms Wigley concludes:
“the proposal is in breach of the landscape policies in the development plan and in the NPPF and insufficient information has been produced to demonstrate how these inherent policy conflicts can be resolved.”
She describes the improvements needed to the highways as “extraordinary”. She says they “demonstrate that this rural highway network is not of an appropriate standard for use by the traffic generated by the development”.
She says the county council will demonstrate that the proposal is contrary to the development plan, unacceptable and the appeal should be dismissed.
10:57am: Opening statement – UKOG
Mr Elvin begins by describing the application made by UKOG. He says it is a combined exploration and appraisal application, building on discoveries made during exploration in the 1980s. The goal is to discover whether the gas deposit at Loxley can be commercially exploited.
The project, says Mr Elvin, is strictly time-limited to no more than three years and may in practice take less time to complete.
The visual impact will vary. Initial drilling will require a rig onsite for up to 12 weeks, with another 8 weeks to drill the sidetrack well. There may be other periods when a workover rig or crane is required, but this should be no more than another 30 weeks.
Mr Elvin adds that the council appears to have mis-understood references to “retention”, which refers to a pause while the results are appraised, rather than any extension to the three year permission.
The council have argued that a three year timescale was not justified. Mr Elvin says this objection was not raised previously by officers, and UKOG need a realistic time frame, with flexibility to deal with any unexpected issues. The 18 months suggested by the council was not adequate.
Mr Elvin also took issue with the council’s argument that the site should be restored before an application for long-term production was made. This would give rise to unnecessary environmental impacts and uncertainty.
Mr Elvin argued that the need for domestic sources of gas is not contested; gas extracted in the UK would have a lower carbon footprint than imported gas and gas is a key part of the government’s Net Zero strategy.
This powerful national case for hydrocarbon exploration and extraction forms the
starting point for the consideration of the appeal.
Turning to the choice of site, Mr Elvin said that 6 sites were initially identified as being suitable. Two were made available, and the option with lowest anticipated level of environmental impact was selected.
Mr Elvin says the application was refused despite recommendations by Council Officers to approve it.
On transport, the Highway Authority had no objections to the original proposals and themselves produced a Road Safety Audit. The dispute now relates only to the suitability of High Loxley Lane and Dunsfold Road, and whether measures can be put in place so these roads can be safely used by HGVs.
The Applicant will submit that no significant highways impacts arise
The council claims there is insufficient evidence to show there will not be significant adverse impacts on the landscape. This lacks credibility claimed Mr Elvin as there were no objections to the proposal from the County Landscaping Consultant or the Surrey Hills AONB Planning Advisor.
The Proposals will have some adverse impacts on the landscape, but these must be taken in context, said Mr Elvin. The site is outside the AONB, and the proposals are reversible and of limited duration.
Concerns had been raised on the effect of the site on a nearby wedding venue. The impact was overstated said Mr Elvin, and UKOG will liaise with the venue to minimise any adverse effects.
10am Inquiry opens
Inspector Michael Robins opens the inquiry.
The inquiry is to be conducted online. Proceedings are streamed on the internet via YouTube
The parties introduce themselves.
David Elvin QC is representing UKOG. He says Will Gardner will give evidence on landscape, Steven Windass on highways, Stephen Sanderson, CEO of UKOG will cover site selection and geology, Kris Bone will give evidence on operations and Nigel Moore will give planning evidence. In addition, says Mr Elvin, Tom Dearing has provided a document covering background issues raised by local residents related to climate change.
Jenny Wigley, QC is representing Surrey County Council. She says she will call Liz Brown to give evidence on landscape and visual impact, Graham Foulkes (Highways) and Richard Hunt (Planning).
Patrick Arthurs is acting for Waverley Borough Council and Alford Parish Council. Mr Arthurs will deal with general planning issues and will call John-Paul Friend to give evidence as a landscape witness.
The Inspector says he has received 188 individual letters opposing the scheme. He also has copies of comments made to the council during the original application.
The Inspector visited some viewpoints of the proposed site last week. and will visit some affected properties after the inquiry is finished.
Mr Elvin for UKOG says that at present there are no plans to apply for costs.
The Inspector, Michael Robins, says the main issues for the inquiry are:
- Effect of the proposal on landscape character and appearance
- Effect on highway safety, including the suitability of the road network
- The planning balance, including need, economic impact and availability of possible alternative sites
Other issues raised by local residents and Waverley council were
- Ecological impacts, noise and disturbance, including at the wedding venue and travellers’ site
- Effects on the new housing at the aerodrome
News updates from the afternoon session here