The public inquiry into plans by UKOG to explore for gas in Surrey heard today that felling in a key area of woodland is to begin within weeks, contradicting evidence from the company.
The role of The Burchetts as a visual screen has been an important issue in the arguments about UKOG’s proposal to drill at Loxley, near Dunsfold.
UKOG’s planning witness, Nigel Moore, had told the inquiry:
“I would be surprised if there is a genuine intention” to fell the woodland”.
But a letter to the inquiry from the woodland’s managers, the Hascombe Estate, rejected this:
“We wish to make it clear to you that Mr Moore is incorrect in this assumption and that we are intending to commence the work in the Autumn of 2021.”
The estate also refuted Mr Moore’s evidence that access to The Burchetts was “constrained”, improvements would be needed to make routes safe and that large articulated lorries would remove the timber.
It told the inquiry that harvesting would be undertaken in “small incremental stages”, access had been agreed and that large vehicles like the one identified by Mr Moore were not needed.
The Burchetts is a mature mixed coniferous and broadleaf woodland, about 500m north of the proposed site.
UKOG’s landscape assessment said the woodland would help to screen the Loxley site and sections of access track from some directions. It concluded:
“Views into the proposed Well Site would also be unlikely to be obtained from lower lying areas within the AONB [Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty] due to the enclosure of the proposed Well Site by The Burchetts woodland to the north.”
But the Hascombe Estate letter, submitted this morning, said:
“The wood will be thinned out, exposing the proposed well operation to both Thatched House Farm, Dunsfold Road and the AONB beyond.”
Views of the proposed site have been a key issue for the inquiry.
The site is on the edge of the Surrey Hills AONB. Surrey County Council argued that, in planning terms, the well pad was in the AONB’s setting.
A new version of government planning policy in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) said development in the setting of AONBs should be “sensitively located and designed to avoid or minimise adverse impacts”.
Jenny Wigley QC, for the council, put it to Mr Moore:
“That sentence makes clear that insensitively located development within setting of the AONB is capable of adverse impact on AONB.”
Mr Moore agreed.
The NPPF also requires that developments should conserve and enhance landscape and scenic beauty in AONBs.
Ms Wigley said:
“If you cause adverse impact on the AONB, that detracts from conserving and enhancing landscape and scenic beauty”.
Mr Moore agreed but he later told the inquiry:
“The footprint of the [Loxley] site is limited. It is going to be very hard to detect it from the AONB and if you can detect it is going to be hard to know what you are looking at.”
UKOG is to submit a written response to the inquiry on the Hascombe Estate’s letter.
Costs and benefits
UKOG has told the inquiry that domestically-produced gas has a lower carbon footprint than imported liquified natural gas (LNG]. It has also said that Loxley gas could be used to produce fossil fuel hydrogen.
Mr Moore said the prospect of production from the Loxley gas site would allow it “to make a valuable contribution in achieving the UK’s carbon emission reduction targets.”
He said the potential benefits would be “quite significant if you are serious about carbon emissions reductions”.
Ms Wigley put it to Mr Moore:
“This proposal is not for hydrogen production”.
“No”, he replied
“It is not for gas extraction”, Ms Wigley said.
“Correct”, Mr Moore said.
“It is only for gas exploration”, Ms Wigley said.
“Correct”, Mr Moore replied.
The NPPF requires decision-makers to distinguish between the different phases of onshore oil and gas.
Ms Wigley said the benefits identified by Mr Moore were not relevant to this application, which was for exploration and appraisal only.
Mr Moore replied:
“I disagree. This is an enabling development. You will never get those benefits if you don’t have the infrastructure in place”
Ms Wigley described the benefits as “entirely speculative”:
“You are trying to have your cake and eat it. You seek to take account of the benefits of future production when the environmental impacts of production are not taken into account.”
Mr Moore agreed but he said:
“The future benefits that this gateway enabling development can give us access to has to be material.
“We are talking about national, possibly global, importance of carbon reduction – the benefits are at that scale.”
His evidence concluded:
“it is precisely the kind of investment envisaged by the Government if the UK is to make the ‘best use’ of its mineral resources and deliver the sustainable growth of the NPPF.”
UKOG told the inquiry today that its proposal complied with local planning and minerals policies.
Mr Moore said the proposal met requirements to “respect and enhance the landscape character” and “protect the setting of the AONB”. It also recognised the character of open countryside, he said.
“I find Surrey County Council’s assertion that the proposed development is ‘inappropriate in this rural area’ to be without policy foundation and in conflict with the SMP [Surrey Minerals Plan], NPPF(203) and national planning practice guidance that facilitates mineral development in principle.”
He said the “residual effects” of the scheme were acceptable and the site had been “located such as there are no significant adverse impacts”.
Ms Wigley said Surrey’s mineral plan said oil or gas applications would be permitted only where “the proposed site has been selected to minimise adverse impacts on the environment”.
She said UKOG’s site selection report, which was part of its original planning application, had no criteria to show how the Loxley site had been chosen from a short list of 23.
“this report doesn’t allow the reader to be assured that this is the least worse site in landscape and highways terms.”
Mr Moore said the company was under no obligation to give this information.
UKOG has told the inquiry it had a record of “responsible site management” and “high standard of restoration”. It referred to the Markwells Wood oil site in the South Downs National Park.
Ms Wigley said the planning permission required the site to be restored by September 2016. She put it to Mr Moore that this was not complied with.
“No”, Mr Moore replied.
An enforcement notice was issued in March 2018, which required the removal of plant, buildings and equipment in six months and site restoration in 12 months. The site was finally restored in 2021.
“The restoration scheme was not complied with within the timescale because restoration was four to five years late”, Ms Wigley said.
Mr Moore replied:
“All those dates are factual:
“There were communications with the council. The enforcement notice issued was not a good thing. It [the site] was restored within the first six months and planted.”
“Beyond the enforcement notice”, Ms Wigley said.
“It was planted, not recklessly rushed”, Mr Moore replied.
Ms Wigley put it to Mr Moore that based on the Markwells Wood experience, restoration at Loxley restoration would happen after seven years, not by the end of three years specified in the planning application.
“No”, Mr Moore replied.
“UKOG continued with consultation with the council [on Markwells Wood]. I don’t think that’s a demonstration of bad behaviour. The site has been restored.”
The inquiry resumes on Friday 6 August at 9.30am with a discussion on possible planning conditions that would be required if permission were granted. Closing arguments are on Friday 13 August.