In a vivid illustration of the strength of government policies favouring the creation of new energy resources, an oil and gas prospecting company has triumphed in its High Court fight to overturn a planning inspector’s refusal of consent for exploratory oil drilling in the Surrey green belt.
Europa Oil and Gas Limited had applied for permission to carry out the 18-week project to assess the viability of any oil deposits in the Holmwood area, which lies within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Surrey County Council had refused permission for the scheme and the company’s appeal was subsequently dismissed by the inspector.
Upholding the company’s challenge to that decision, the Court ruled that the project fell within the definition of ‘mineral extraction’ which, under national planning policies, is viewed as appropriate development within the green belt, subject to landscape and environmental considerations. The inspector had erred materially in law in finding that the proposals were inappropriate in the protected area and that consent could only therefore be granted in ‘very special circumstances'.
Overturning the inspector’s decision and directing a reconsideration of the matter by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Court noted that it could not be satisfied that the inspector would inevitably have reached the same conclusion had the error not been made.
The inspector had acknowledged that exploration for gas and oil is consistent with national planning policies but had concluded that uncertainty over the presence of hydrocarbons in the area, and the likely scale of such resources if they existed, meant that consent should not be granted.
Noting that the objective of the project was to drill for and remove a test sample, the Court found that that this ‘fell quite comfortably’ within the definition of mineral extraction which embraced necessary precursor steps.
Emphasising the benefits of mineral extraction to the overall economy, the Court noted that it was ‘surprising’ that the inspector had treated the temporary nature and reversibility of the development as ‘wholly irrelevant’ to the issue of whether the impact on the green belt would be acceptable.
However, recognising the importance of the issues raised by the case, the Court granted the Secretary of State and local campaign group, the Leith Hill Action Group, permission to challenge its decision in the Court of Appeal.