Lessons from Balcombe, by Helen Savage

Balcombe resident and campaigner Helen Savage looks at the lessons from the refusal of Angus Energy’s plans to test for oil in her village.

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Flowers laid outside Angus Energy’s Balcombe site after the refusal of planning permission for well testing. Photo: Helen Savage

There were tears of joy in Balcombe on the 2nd March when West Sussex County Council unanimously refused Angus Energy’s application for an 18 month operation involving a one-year flow test. It was a nail-biting finale to 10 long years of campaigning.

The council’s planning committee heard from five speakers against the application, including parish, district and county councillors. Only George Lucan, the managing director of Angus Energy, spoke in favour.

All 13 councillors on the committee agreed there were no exceptional circumstances for exploring for hydrocarbons at this site in the protected landscape of the High Weald is Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

There were many questions about why council planners had recommended approval of this application when last year they opposed similar proposals. Councillors also repeatedly picked up on arguments put forward by the Balcombe speakers that the well test flew in the face of current thinking on climate change.

This case highlights the need for the government to update its National Planning Policy Framework to reflect the new Energy White Paper and its commitments on climate change.

We say no new wells should be explored, regardlessof location. How much more countryside could be damaged for the sake of an insignificant amount of oil, when we are already reducing our consumption anyway?

Change of mind

In 2020, planning officers recommended refusal of an application for a three-year well test at Balcombe.

They said it was “not in the public interest” and there were “no exceptional circumstances” to justify the development in the High Weald AONB. They said that application breached policies in the National Planning Policy Framework and polices M13 and M7a of the West Sussex Joint Minerals Plan.

Angus then came back with another application for a one-year well test and a new membrane for the site. The application also included documents in support of the company’s arguments that the test was in the public interest. It would benefit the local economy, Angus said, and meet the UK’s need for oil.

There were 805 objections to the application and four comments in support. This time the planning officer Chris Bartlett, recommended approval.

His report concluded:

“Taking account of the changes to the proposed development (in particular the shorter duration of the operations proposed compared with the previous application), the additional information submitted by the applicant, and changes to national energy policy, the revised application is considered to accord with the policies in the development plan and, therefore, it is acceptable.”

Residents were baffled. The only small change was a slightly shorter time on site (they would still be there for 18 months) – and a different membrane.

Gary Marsh, Mid-Sussex district councillor for Ardingly and Balcombe, spoke against the application at the meeting. He asked:

“If it was refused last time, why is it OK now? What has changed? Why is it OK now, with a stated government policy to pursue a green agenda and not rely on fossil fuels in the future?”

Bill Acraman, West Sussex County Councillor for Worth Forest Division, criticised the planning officer’s recommendations:

On balance, the number of times Bartlett said on balance – last year, on balance, do it…this year on balance don’t do it”, implying that the ‘balance’ may be a nebulous term.

Cllr Acraman concluded:

On balance, as Humphrey Bogart once said in a film: the reasons for doing it aren’t worth a hill of beans’’.

Cllr Richard Burrett, a member of the committee, asked the planning officer whether the shorter well test was a reason for recommending approval.

The planning officer replied:

“I don’t think I said the year would make a difference in my recommendation. We’ve got more information as regards the policies”.

But, on pressing, the officer later conceded that he had stated that the time factor was a reason for the change in recommendation.

Councillor Ashvin Patel, another committee member, said the previous application had been refused because there was “scope for meeting the needs [for oil] in another way”. But the planners’ response to the current application suggested the Balcombe well would now contribute to the national need for oil and gas.

He said:

“All of a sudden there is a need for it now. All of a sudden, there is more interest [in this application].

“All of a sudden you’ve got scope for meeting the need through this development and I’m not happy with that.”

He was the first member of the committee to propose refusing the application.

Exceptional circumstances

Angus Energy’s managing director, Lord Lucan, said the development in the AONB was justified by the need for oil. He also described the application as a “modest development” that was sensitive to its surroundings – words that had previously angered residents.

Quoting from the December 2020 Energy White Paper, George Lucan said there would be “a need for oil and gas well into the future” and “the domestic oil and gas industry has a critical role to play in maintaining the country’s energy security and is a major contributor to our economy’’.

This quote was also used in the planning officer’s report, which described the Energy White Paper as the latest guidance from government and a “key material consideration”.

Cllr Pieter Montyn, a member of the planning committee, referred to the quote:

“I have to say, with greatest respect to our officers, I find this quote, when seen on its own, very misleading.”

He added:

“First of all, ‘domestic’ does not mean onshore. It means including our continental shelf offshore. Indeed the [Energy White Paper] report deals almost entirely with offshore production with a very brief mention in the beginning of onshore. 

Other than the need to ensure that fossil fuel supply is to remain available during this transition, there is no mention of, or caution against, oil or gas shortages. It’s all about the pathway to zero, … so … there are now no exceptional circumstances and this application does not now serve the national interest.”

Cllr Montyn explained that the government’s Energy Policy White paper sets out a case for tackling climate change. So, we ask ourselves in Balcombe, why the planner cited this paper as making a material difference to this application? Had he simply taken the quote from Angus Energy and not read the whole White Paper?

Other councillors said they felt there were no exceptional circumstances for flow-testing in an AONB and that the need for oil could be met elsewhere.

Public opponents of the application argued that the Balcombe well would produce a miniscule amount of oil compared with the national supply. Jon Millbanks (Chair of Balcombe Parish Council) said

“This application comes against a decade of declining consumption in the UK. By Angus’ own admission the site is likely to produce less than 0.005 of 1% of the volume of Wych farm, which in turn produces less than 1% of the daily national consumption.”

Sue Taylor, a member of Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association, said the planners’ report implied that Angus should be allowed to flow-test at its site in the village because there was nowhere else available in the Petroleum Exploration and Development Licence (PEDL). She said just because a company had a PEDL license did not mean there was an imperative to use it.

Ms Taylor pointed out that most of our current oil supply came by pipeline from Norway and the North Sea and this had a lower carbon footprint than oil produced onshore in the UK and taken by tanker to refineries.

Financial benefits

Councillors and opponents of the application questioned the benefits the well test would bring to the local economy.

Cllr Montyn said Angus had submitted:

“30 pages of recitals of policies and various statistics and finally just three pages on the local effect. What it amounted to is just four permanent jobs really that were specific to the industry.

…these sums of economic benefits are of negligible effect to the local economy’s gross value added.”

John Butcher, a Balcombe resident and a director at a multinational company, spoke against the application. He said the financial benefits estimated by Angus to the local economy were “vastly overstated”.

He told councillors the expected £40,000-60,000 in business rate benefits would come to West Sussex only if Angus went into production. They should be part of a subsequent application rather than this one. He calculated that 89% of other supposed benefits to the local economy would, in fact, be ‘pass-through’ costs and not remain with local companies.

Balcombe Parish Council chairman, Jon Millbanks, another speaker against the application, said:

“It is completely misleading to portray any benefit to local economy from the site.

“rather than considering this development in an AONB against an outside area, contemplation of the need for development at all should be addressed.”

He said he felt the planner had “misdirected himself”.

Minerals and climate policy

Cllr Marsh said the West Sussex joint local minerals plan had changed since earlier applications which had allowed flow testing at Balcombe. Now, he said, this work should not be allowed in an AONB.

He said:

“We’re nine years away from 2030. This is when the government has stated there will be no new cars sold that rely on carbon fossil fuels.

“It’s universally accepted all across the political spectrum that this translates that all applications for carbon-based fossil fuels extraction should be refused. This is now a material consideration that should be taken into account with this application.”

Cllr Acraman quoted Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 climate talks to be hosted by the UK later this year:

“Tackling climate change is one of the most urgent shared endeavours of our life-times, demanding bold action from every nation to prevent catastrophic global warming.”

Planning committee member, Cllr Karen Sudan said:

“As a nation we have committed ourselves to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and as a council we have committed to playing our part and if that commitment is to mean anything, then I think we’ve got to find very exceptional circumstances against that.”

Another committee member, Cllr Morwen Millson, concluded:

“Nothing has convinced me that anything has changed…what has changed is government policies and that we have policies moving away from fossil fuels”.

The former leader of the council, Cllr Louise Goldsmith observed:

“The issue of climate change and dealing with the emergency trumps all other policies that have gone in the past”

It was music to our ears to hear councillors quoting a strong green agenda in a planning meeting about Balcombe oil exploration.

Sweet or sour?

Councillor Goldsmith asked whether the Balcombe well was ‘sweet or sour’, because this had a big impact on the safety of flaring close to residents.

Both planners on questioning said they had “never heard” of this, although they have been involved in several well applications in the area, with the role of hearing people’s objections.

It makes us ask: whose job is it to hear our concerns and act on them? Even if the planners don’t believe these points will be a reason to stop an application going through, whose job is it to research these points and reassure us? In Balcombe, it has been down to the community to try to do this for ourselves.

As campaigners since 2012, we’ve always had concerns about the sour gas issue because we know there is sulphur in the well. We have put questions to the Environment Agency and Community Liaison Group. It seems surprising the planner, who is on that group was unaware of the answer to Cllr Goldsmith’s question.

Cllr Goldsmith responded:

“My feeling is I do not have enough comfort from what I’ve heard to support the application.

“The mere fact that officers were not aware…it’s not their fault, it makes me feel a bit more anxious.”

She added later:

“I find that the paper [officer’s report] in certain detail is quite weak, certainly potential downsides, and it is really a reflection for future papers that more detail could come forwards.

“We need to know a lot more detail if we’re going to make a choice on something so contentious and so important.”

This demonstrates, as we have often said in Balcombe, that there are too many complications with different bodies, from the Environment Agency to West Sussex County Council, taking different parts in decision making around an oil development. There are just too many opportunities for important issues of public concern to slip between the cracks, and those concerns are not given enough time or thought in the planning process.

Traffic and noise: potential or guaranteed?

Rachel Hall, a Balcombe mum who spoke against the application, focused on the effects of the heavy traffic on the children at the village school. She also spoke about pollution in the form of both smells and noise that residents had already experienced during the last flow-test at Balcombe.

Councillor Andrew Baldwin criticised what the planner listed as ‘adverse effects’ and the “potential” for increased noise, traffic and HGV movements and impacts on air quality, traffic. He said:

“It’s not a potential. It’s guaranteed.”

Councillor Liz Kitchen, the committee’s vice chair, said she lived under the Gatwick flight path and was aware of pollution from aircraft generally degrading air-quality, she stated:

“Heavy lorry movements so close to the school fills me with horror”.

Policy update needed

During the meeting Cllr Simon Oakley began to discuss the weight that should be given to government statements on transition to a fossil free environment. However, the discussion was brought back to the fact that it is obvious there are no exceptional circumstances for this development in an AONB. The situation for Balcombe was already very clear from the WSCC Joint Minerals Local Plan. Indeed, if the planners had done their homework and read the White Paper in full they should have realised that it was no ‘new evidence’ to suggest that this well should go ahead, but in fact, exactly the opposite. Luckily our 13 WSCC councillors were well-informed enough to be able to point that out clearly to their planners.

Louise Goldsmith’s point remains: the climate emergency effectively “trumps all other policies that have gone in the past”; indeed, surely the Energy White Paper’s ‘pathway to zero’ should be a material consideration in all applications. 

The sooner this is enshrined in an updated and clear National Planning Policy Framework, the clearer it will be to stop more unnecessary destruction of our precious landscape and the sooner we will be able to slow climate change.

What is also clear from this week’s meeting is the way that the oil company selectively quoted from government energy policy to its own advantage, without acknowledging the context within which the words were written.

Balcombe residents already knew we couldn’t trust Angus Energy and their so-called “sensitive development”, because we had seen the way it was handled from our side: from noise, to weak engagement, to traffic misdemeanours. In fact, our experience of the various oil operators in Balcombe has convinced us of the importance of not taking anything from them on trust – from effective self-regulation during operations to impact on the community.

Our case highlights the need for more time and consideration within the planning system to be given to the very complex issue of whether to allow onshore oil developments. We can see no need for them at all. After all, as the Energy White Paper sets out, we are in a climate emergency. It should all now be about the pathway to zero.