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Inspector overturns refusal of oil and gas drilling in Surrey green belt

Words: Huw Morris
Holmwood Station, Surrey Hills

A planning inspector has overturned Surrey County Council's refusal of an exploratory oil and gas drilling project on a green belt site.

Inspector JS Nixon ruled that the benefits from the scheme outweighed short-term damage from the development, and said it would be appropriate in the green belt.

Europa Oil And Gas originally submitted plants to drill at Holmwood, in the Surrey Hills area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in 2008, which was rejected by the council. The Planning Inspectorate turned down its appeal but the company successfully challenged this in the High Court in 2013.

This verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal last year, with a second appeal heard early in 2015.

The company claimed the project, which involves one exploratory borehole and testing for hydrocarbons, was "mineral extraction" as defined in the National Planning Policy Framework and was exempt from tough restrictions on development in the green belt.

In his decision letter, Nixon said national benefits, the lack of alternatives, benefits to the public and the "extremely limited duration of the effects on the environment" were factors in allowing the scheme. Europa has a further application outstanding for an underground well path at the site.

Chief executive Hugh Mackay said the site has prospective resources of 5.6 million barrels of oil, with a one in three chance of success. "We regard Holmwood as one of the best undrilled conventional prospects in onshore UK."

Leith Hill Action Group, which has campaigned against the plan, said: "We are naturally disappointed at the decision. We now look to Surrey County Council to ensure that, if the development proceeds, the conditions attached to the consent are monitored and enforced so as to minimise the adverse impact on the Surrey Hills AONB and to protect the safety of all road users and residents affected."

Holmwood and Leith Hill are at the edges of the Weald Basin which, according to a 2014 estimate by the British Geological Survey, contains between 2.2 and 8.6 billion barrels of shale oil.