Surrey County Council exaggerated the value of the landscape around a proposed site for gas exploration, the company behind the scheme has claimed.
UK Oil & Gas plc is defending its proposal at a public inquiry for an exploration site at Loxley near the village of Dunsfold.
The site is in a designated Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV) and on the edge of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
UKOG has told the inquiry that it does not consider the area to be valued landscape. But Liz Brown, the landscape witness for the council, which refused permission for the drilling site, has described the landscape as “highly valued”.
David Elvin QC, for UKOG, described Mrs Brown’s judgement on the landscape as an “after thought”. Cross-examining her on the third day of the inquiry today, he said:
“You have had since February but we see nothing on your methodology on valued landscape”.
He said the council’s original landscape consultant had not regarded the proposed site as in a valued landscape. And he said a court case involving Stroud Borough Council ruled that designated landscapes could not be assumed to be valued.
Mrs Brown says she went through an exercise to confirm this the Area of Great Landscape Value around Dunsfold was indeed valued. She says she looked at the component parts that contributed to the value of the landscape.
Mr Elvin responds:
“It doesn’t translate into the proof of evidence at all, apart from one sentence. This is a late thought and a case that has been put together on the hoof and you have exaggerated.”
Mrs Brown replies:
“I don’t know how to respond to this. I took an approach to break down the component parts of the landscape characteristics. This is a key component of landscape character assessment. I provided them in more detail than the appellant [UKOG].”
Mrs Brown has criticised the landscape information provided by UKOG, although this was not raised by previous council consultants, the inquiry heard.
Mr Elvin says the first time UKOG heard about the alleged inadequacy of evidence was in Mrs Brown’s proof of evidence. He asks:
“You did not think it helpful or appropriate to raise these issues.”
“That is correct”, Mrs Brown replies.
How big will be the impact of the drilling site?
The inquiry heard more discussion this morning about the scale of impact of the landscape from the proposed site.
The council is concerned about increases in traffic on Dunsfold Road and High Loxley Road, a narrow lane which will provide access to the drilling pad.
Mr Elvin says there are currently nearly 800 HGVs on Dunsfold Road. This is an important factor. We are adding 10 HGVs a day, he says. These would be spready over 12 hours. It is an insignificant number, he says.
That is just one issue I have considered, Mrs Brown says.
The inquiry later hears that there will be up to 10 visits by HGVs to the wellsite, 10 in and 10 out.
Mrs Brown says the largest HGVs visiting the site were expected to result in a 6% increase of those using Dunsfold Road.
Mr Elvin puts it to Mrs Brown that she takes issues with “roadside clutter” like traffic signals on Dunsfold Road. He says traffic lights are common when road works are carried out. They will not be permanent, he says.
Mrs Brown says there would need to be modifications at the junction of Dunsfold Road and High Loxley Road. Road widening would also be needed to abnormal vehicles, which would be 22m long. It is not just the number, she says. It is also about the changes to the character of the junction and the lane.
Mr Elvin says the temporary changes to the roads would be removed by the end of the three year scheme. This would be one of the last things that would be done, Mrs Brown says.
Country lanes, tranquillity and wedding business
High Loxley Road was described at the inquiry yesterday as a rare rural lane.
Mr Elvin says country lanes are not unusual in this area. “They are characteristic of this part of the country”, he says. In the study area there aren’t many, Mrs Brown replies. High Loxley Road is a key feature of the landscape, she says.
Mr Elvin asks Mrs Brown whether she assessed traffic generated by a wedding business on High Loxley Road at High Billinghurst Farm. I don’t take this into account, Mrs Brown says.
The tranquillity of the area will not be helped by the weddings, Mr Elvin says. You are going to have noise, a lot of people and you are going to have light, he says.
He suggests that the wedding business is not in keeping with the agricultural landscape. Mrs Brown says it is a small-scale business.
The wedding venue is permanent, not temporary Mr Elvin says. Parties for 250 people are not in keeping with agriculture, he says. He says the business is allowed to run up to 75 events a year.
Its planning permission allows for noise up to 95db. This is 50 db higher than the noise limit proposed for the UKOG site, he says.
The 95 db limit could go on until 1am, Mr Elvin says. This means wedding guests could be using the lane until the early hours of the morning.
Mr Elvin also says weddings are set up a day before the event and taken down the day after. There are also staff working at the wedding, as well as guests, generating additional traffic.
That is traffic for up to 225 days a year, Mr Elvin says. That is quite a proportion of the year, Mr Elvin says.
Mrs Brown says wedding traffic would be focussed either side of the function. UKOG traffic would be spread out throughout the day.
She says the UKOG would operate 24-hour activity in the proposed drilling phase and part of the testing phase. High Billinghurst Farm does not operating as a venue 24-hours a day, she says, so noise would not be all day and night. The maximum noise limit applied at the wedding venue up to 75 days a year, she says.
The inquiry later hears that High Billinghurst Farm planning permission’s prevents external lighting. The only outdoor lighting allowed is inside a marquee. It is also told that UKOG HGVs will have to cross an open field. This doesn’t happen for traffic using High Billinghurst Farm.
The planning permission to increase the number of events from 50-75 events a year at High Billinghurst Farm is limited to two years, the inquiry was also told. A previous permission allows the use of no more than 28 marquees a year. Waverley Borough Council reported there had been no complaints from neighbours.
How long with the landscape impacts last?
UKOG has stressed that the application is for three years and considers it to be temporary.
Mr Elvin asks where Mrs Brown has considered duration on the magnitude of impact on the landscape.
Mrs Brown says magnitude of change is the main point in her assessment but duration can be a consideration. She says she considered the different phases and the residual effects from each phase. She says she based her assessment on UKOG consultant’s methodology.
Mr Elvin says an impact of 20 years would be very different to one of only 5 years. Mrs Brown says the impact could be different. She says the issue is whether there is notable change. Even a short-term change can have high magnitude, she says.
Mrs Brown says there has been an over-reliance by UKOG on its assessment that there will be a neutral effect at the end of the project. This under-assesses the significance of the impact of each phase, she says.
Mr Elvin replies: “If you don’t take account of duration you are not properly assessing magnitude”.
Mrs Brown disagrees. She says she has described the features of the phases of the development over three years that will result in landscape impact.
Mr Elvin says there will be no residual effects on the landscape when restoration has taken places.
Mrs Brown disagrees. She says the significance of impact would be negligible only when hedgerows have re-established after 5-10 years after the end of the project.
Mr Elvin says it is not necessary for the hedgerow to re-establish over 5-10 years to achieve a neutral impact. There will be a reversal of effects by the removal of roadworks, site entrance, and fencing and the planting of a new hedge, he says. The residual effects will be on a reducing scale until the hedge is established, he adds.
Mrs Brown says the overall significance of impact cannot be described as neutral until the last element – the replacement of the hedgerow – has established and this will take 5-10 years.
Mr Elvin says significant aspects of impact such as access track, security fencing and lights and loss of farmland, do not take 5-10 years to reverse. In less than that time, we have lost the intrusiveness of the site and the access track. Mrs Brown agrees.
When the hedge is planted, Mr Elvin says, it may take some years to establish but it will not take 10 years to form a continuous line. It could take three years. He says by then it would be 1.5m tall and the hedging plants would have knitted together. It will be growing from the day it is planted, he says.
That is not my experience, Mrs Brown says. That land will have been under concrete. It will take more than three years. In a worst-case the hedging plants could die. She also says it will take extra time after the end of the project for the farmland to return to its previous state.
Mr Elvin says the new hedgerow won’t be visible in the wider landscape. Mrs Brown replies that the legacy of the proposed development continues as long as the hedgerow is established properly. Until it is established, it will a constant reminder of what was there before. It will not look the same as the rest of High Loxley Road, she says.
Mrs Brown later says she doesn’t understand how the highway work could be done until the site restoration had been completed. because of the size of vehicles needed do the work.
The concrete site compound and the security fencing would not disappear until the end of the final phase, she says. There would be a worst-case substantial effect, she says.
Questions over accuracy of visualisations
There were questions yesterday about the accuracy of a visualisation produced by UKOG.
Mr Elvin says UKOG visualisations were produced by experienced onsite survey teams. They were verified by features on the ground. Mrs Brown agrees.
The inspector can have a high degree of confidence of the accuracy of UKOG’s accuracy, Mr Elvin says. Mrs Brown says the visualisation had no clear reference points.
You can’t say they are inaccurate, Mr Elvin says. You haven’t done your own visualisation, he says.
UKOG has the opportunity to provide additional information and it has not provided enough to validate them, Mrs Brown says.
Disagreement over viewpoints
The two sides disagree on which viewpoints that should be used to assess the impact of the UKOG site on the landscape.
Mr Elvin asks why Mrs Brown did not set out in an appeal document which viewpoints should be added to those proposed by UKOG.
I should have, Mrs Brown says. It wasn’t possible to reach agreement with UKOG, she adds. She proposes an exchange of emails with UKOG consultants to explain how the disagreement progressed.
The inspector, Mike Robins, asks about the impact of felling the Burchetts woodland, which partly surrounds the site. This is expected to open up views of the proposed site.
Mrs Brown says if the woodland is felled, the area will appear more open. The drilling site will become more evident, she says.
The inquiry resumes at 1.30pm