Judge backs oil and gas firm over Surrey green belt plans

An example of local planning powers overturned:


Judge backs oil and gas firm over Surrey green belt plans

A judge has quashed a planning inspector’s decision to refuse permission for an oil and gas company’s plans for exploratory oil drilling in the Surrey green belt.

Planning Resource, Friday 26th July 2013

Mr Justice Duncan Ouseley quashed a planning inspector’s decision to refuse the company planning permission and ordered the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, to have the matter reconsidered.

However, he granted an action group opposed to the plans permission to take the case to the Court of Appeal, where it hopes the inspector’s decision will be reinstated.

Europa Oil and Gas wants to secure permission for exploratory drilling on land at Bury Hill Wood, Coldharbour Lane, Holmwood, to test for hydrocarbons in the so-called Holmwood Prospect.

The judge ruled that the inspector was wrong not to treat the proposal – which would involve work being carried out over 18 weeks – as “mineral extraction”, which is considered in principle as “appropriate development” in the green belt, subject to considerations including
impact on the landscape.

The inspector had treated the proposal as “inappropriate development”, for which “very special circumstances” were required to justify it in the green belt.

Rejecting claims from the secretary of state and the Leith Hill Action Group that the inspector’s error made no difference to the overall decision, he said: “I am not satisfied that without the error the decision would inevitably have been the same. It might have been, but
that is not enough.”

In any event, he said that the reasoning justifying the decision would have had to be different.

He said: “I am satisfied that the inspector made a material error and the outcome of his decision without that error may well have been different”.

He ordered the government to pay the company’s legal costs, to be assessed, and granted the Action Group permission to appeal on the basis that the definition of mineral extraction is a point of public interest.

In his lengthy ruling, the judge said: “The development was and is of considerable local controversy.”

He said that Surrey County Council had refused permission in 2011, but that its reasons for doing so did not include that the development was inappropriate in the Green Belt.

However, the inspector, rejecting Europa’s appeal following a public inquiry, did find that the development was inappropriate and concluded that, as a result of uncertainty over the existence of hydrocarbons in the Holmwood Prospect, and scale of the resource even if they do exist, concluded that the necessary very special circumstances did not exist to outweigh the harm.

He did so even though acknowledging that exploration for oil and gas was consistent with national and local planning policy.

Backing the claim advanced by Europa that exploratory drilling should be treated as mineral extraction, he said: “The issue is one of interpretation – does mineral extraction include or exclude mineral exploration?”

Ruling that extraction includes necessary precursor steps, such as exploration, he said: “The nature of the development is to carry out works to drill and remove a test sample. This fits quite comfortably within the concept of extraction. I conclude that the inspector erred in failing to conclude that the proposal was for mineral extraction.”

The inspector’s opposite interpretation, he said, would undermine policies that aim to benefit the economy through extraction of minerals.

He added that it was “surprising” that the inspector treated the temporary nature and reversibility of the development as “wholly irrelevant” to the impact on openness of the green belt.

The site in question stands in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty.

Posted on: July 26, 2013