15 July 2017
Stop the Leith Hill oil drilling!
Hello to all our supporters.
OIL DRILLING UPDATE
With so much activity recently regarding the oil drilling site, we thought an update would be a good idea. This is a longer newsletter than usual, but we hope you will appreciate the summary of where everything stands at this time.
Europa are proposing a bigger and longer-lasting oil-drilling development than that which was finally given conditional approval in 2015 after six years of opposition and two refusals. Surrey County Council appears to be working with Europa to find ways around the “inconvenient” conditions imposed by the Planning Inspector – conditions which were imposed explicitly as mitigation for some of the environmental harms that he acknowledged would be caused. We say: if the conditions attaching to the permission given by HM Inspector cannot be met, then the project should be scrapped. We look to our District Council, the Parish Councils of Capel and Holmwood, and the Surrey Hills AONB Board to support us in this.
The reason this totally inappropriate site in the AONB was chosen by Europa (and its partners Egdon Resources, Angus Energy, Union Jack Oil and UK Oil & Gas) is simply money. It is technically feasible to explore these same prospective oil reserves from further away but it would require more up to date technology than the 1970s drilling rig that they propose to use. And if they find anything, the same motivation – doing the job on the cheap – means they will look to make Bury Hill Wood the production site for a further thirty years. This is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and needs tp be protected as such.
Most of you will be aware that security fencing has been put up around the well site and around the access track to it, thus cutting off public access to this part of the AONB. At the 2015 Public Inquiry, although Europa finally got planning permission, Leith Hill Action Group secured a number of Conditions attaching to that permission designed to limit the harm that will be done. One of these is an 18-week start to finish time on site; another was that the development has to take place on the 0.79 hectare Site described. Late last year, Europa put in two further applications to surround the Site with security fencing which would increase the Site area by 28% and add either 17% or 200% to the time on site. Surrey County Council (“SCC”) decided that, although the resulting development was bigger and longer than that approved by HM Inspector and completely changes – and worsens – the impact of the development on Coldharbour Lane, in the case of the shorter of the two versions no Environmental Impact Assessment was required. As we reported in an earlier newsletter, at our request, the Secretary of State overruled SCC.
Two days after that ruling, without any public notice, SCC officers approved as “permitted development” the fencing that has gone up. Its impact on Coldharbour Lane is much less than in the two additional applications (so no, you haven’t seen the worst of it yet), and the Site area is less (though it still appears to go beyond the approved Site). But it still cuts off public access to the Site and the area beyond. The permission is for six months, which can be added to the approved 18 week period. So we asked the Secretary of State for a further Screening Direction to require Environmental Impact Assessment. He did not reply to us (for which we later received an apology) but instead told SCC and Europa that he would not “interfere”. Once they knew that, they were free to put up the fencing at will.
A developer can always appeal a refusal of planning permission by a planning authority to the Planning Inspectorate (that’s why we have had two Public Inquiries about all this), but opponents can only challenge a granting of permission on grounds of illegality, by the expensive process of Judicial Review. In the same way, it seems, under the regulations governing Environmental Impact Assessment, a developer has the right to a Direction from the Secretary of State, but opponents can only request a Direction.
The tenuous excuse that SCC have lighted on is that things needed for the pre- and post-development water borehole monitoring are exempt from the 18-week limit and from the strict prohibition in the Inspector’s decision on any fencing or buildings beyond what was contemplated in the application he considered. Normally the surface equipment for borehole monitoring is enclosed in a small cage a few feet square; not inside several hundred metres of Security Fencing. We think the claim that this “permitted development” – and in particular the denial of customary public access to a large area – is necessary for borehole monitoring is bogus.
So what’s happening now?
The two Security Fencing Applications mentioned above are still in process – although it is difficult to see why the longer one is. As part of this, Europa have supplied a sad apology for an Environmental Statement which went out for public consultation in May. We have objected that the document does not even mention, let alone assess, the major change to visual impact on Coldharbour Lane; it assesses the socio-economic impact of the overall development on the local economy as beneficial (which is an astonishing claim! Certainly, the Plough has spoken up strongly for itself on this regard!); and it fails to meet regulatory requirements in many other ways.
As a result of the objections that have been made, we learn indirectly that “further information” has been requested, which will then have to go out to consultation. So you will have a further chance to let your views be known. We are also urging Mole Valley District Council and Capel Parish Council to object too. It is to be hoped that the Surrey Hills Board will also be concerned about the impact of the enlarged development on the AONB, although their ability to act against the wishes of SCC appears limited. The applications seem unlikely to be taken by Surrey’s Planning & Regulatory Committee before September.
No drilling can start until a Traffic Management Scheme has been approved. That was a further Condition attached to the 2015 permission. Traffic impacts obviously have to be taken into account when granting a permission, so it was unusual that the Inspector granted permission having said of the Traffic Management Scheme “I cannot see how this can work”. But rather than refuse, he said “try again” – and let SCC (whom he severely criticised for lack of diligence in assessing and approving the original Traffic Management Scheme) decide if the new scheme works.
That new scheme was also put out to consultation in May. If you have read it and have a feeling of déjà vu, that is because the essential elements are exactly the same as before – i.e. it is the scheme that the Inspector said could not work. A lot is made of the possibility of replacing three thousand tonnes of hardcore with aluminium trackway, which it is claimed could take up to six hundred HGV movements off the 1,650 said to be required. (No, you won’t have seen these numbers in the TMS; it has to be inferred from the information in there.) But this aluminium trackway scheme is surrounded by caveats: ‘if it is available’, ‘if it works’, etc.; the fact is Europa are still seeking permission for the original scheme. And in any case, the highest HGV movement rates do not occur during the site preparation and site restoration phases when the use of aluminium in place of stone would make a difference, but during the main drilling phase. We believe that the effect of trying to manage this number of movements of massive vehicles (700 of them vehicles forty feet or more long) along Coldharbour Lane would be effectively to close Coldharbour Lane to all other traffic for the duration of the development – a minimum of four months.
The impacts of the Traffic Management Scheme include, for example, the impact on businesses (such as the Plough) and the effect on users of Coldharbour Lane (such as time delays, safety, additional fuel and time for alternative routes), ability of those alternative routes safely to take higher traffic volumes, and the continued existence of the bus service. These issues have not been addressed either in the Traffic Management Scheme or in the Environmental Statement. The impact on equestrian users is stated to be zero because, according to Europa, there aren’t any.
LHAG has objected to the proposed adoption of the Traffic Management Scheme presented. We understand that “further information” has been requested from Europa on this as well. We would expect this to be put to consultation, so we would expect that you will have another chance to make your views known; this time perhaps with fuller and more honestly presented information. Again, we look to our District and Parish Councils, as consultees, to stand up for the rights of their constituents.
We also look to our County Council to ensure Europa follow the planning regulations and meet the requirements imposed by the Inspector. SCC, we are all wholly dependent on you to ensure the rules are followed; if you don’t do it, there is no higher regulator we can turn to. The regulations are there to stop companies riding roughshod over our rights, and the Inspector imposed Conditions to mitigate environmental harms. But if you as the local authority don’t enforce these requirements, they may as well not exist.