Getting to work

Helen Hutton discusses planning successes for a specific case of onshore exploration

In August 2015 an Inspector allowed an appeal by Europa Oil & Gas (Holdings) plc to carry out short-term conventional hydrocarbon exploration, at Holmwood, in the Weald Basin. The appeal scheme related to the main drill site (the surface drill-site). This was followed in September by the County Council approving a planning application for the underground drilling corridor of the deviated exploration well, which is being described as the “panhandle” application (and the surface drill-site as the “pan”!).

The above appeal for the “pan” and the application for the “panhandle” both being allowed, comes at the end of a long and at times bumpy journey for Europa in relation to obtaining the planning consents for this site, as it has been caught between the Government’s policy to promote onshore hydrocarbon exploration and extraction and the opposition to such activities by the locals.

The original planning application for the “pan” had been submitted in 2008, but it was then refused by Surrey County Council’s planning committee, contrary to the planning officer’s positive recommendation, in 2011. An Inspector in 2012 did not allow the first appeal against the refusal, but Europa challenged that Inspector’s decision and it was quashed in the High Court in 2013.

The 2013 High Court decision confirmed that hydrocarbon exploration fell within the definition of mineral extraction within the National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”) (and local policies) and so such exploration could benefit from the same exemptions from the usual restrictions that apply to other forms of development in the Green Belt. The NPPF had only been brought in in March 2012, so Europa’s first planning appeal had been one of the first Green Belt matters to be decided under the new NPPF policy, when the decision was issued in September that year.

The Court of Appeal then upheld the High Court judgment, in June 2014, after Leith Hill Action Group in turn challenged that decision. The application by LHAG to appeal that decision up to the Supreme Court was however dismissed by the Court of Appeal judges.

With the original refusal of the “pan” application quashed, Europa then made a second appeal earlier this year and that appeal was allowed in August by an Inspector in a clear and decisive decision.

The Inspector confirmed that the proposed exploration scheme would not be inappropriate development in the Green Belt and the fact that the operations would be very short-term and entirely reversible, would ensure the permanence of the Green Belt and greatly reduce harm to it. He also confirmed that the wholly reversible nature and possible long-term benefits of exploration would also reduce the impact on the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to well below the threshold of significant. Other issues raised at the Inquiry, such as traffic impacts, were found not to be compelling, as they could be dealt with effectively and safely. The Inspector confirmed that no alternative site had been established, which would provide an alternative drill site. The Inspector was therefore convinced that the short-term harm to the identified issues of acknowledged importance would be clearly and demonstrably outweighed by the fully reversible nature and benefits of the scheme in national and local terms.

The panhandle planning application which had been submitted to Surrey County Council last year was then heard by the County Council’s committee at the next planning meeting to be held after the above appeal decision. The local opposition did try to bring in aboveground issues, but this application was limited to the underground issues in its determination. The committee followed the planning officer’s recommendation and approved it.

The final results in this case are clearly refreshingly good news for Europa and the UK onshore hydrocarbon industry as a whole, confirming so strongly that the NPPF’s exception for development in the Green Belt could indeed apply to hydrocarbon exploration as well as extraction. But these recent successes have come at a significant cost for the company in terms of time and money. Each level of challenge by and against Europa took around a year and so over four years have passed between the original refusal by the Surrey County Council planning committee and the same application finally being allowed at its second appeal.

The exploration for (and extraction of) hydrocarbons is encouraged by national planning policy. Recent legislative changes assisting such activities, including rights of access where the drill-well is more than 300m below ground (under the Infrastructure Act 2015) and the permitted development rights (which the Government has confirmed are imminent), relating to groundwater monitoring, and the Government’s promise to help speed up the decision-making process for hydrocarbon matters at mineral authority level, are some of the latest ways in which the exploration and extraction of this valuable national resource are being promoted. But, as Europa and other onshore hydrocarbon companies have experienced, there are many other issues to deal with, alongside national policy. The localism agenda is stronger than ever before, especially as those opposed to fracking have also given a louder voice to the opponents to conventional hydrocarbon exploration and extraction, and the force of the anti-fracking campaign generally has heightened concerns about the consequences of any onshore hydrocarbon activities.

If hydrocarbons are found at Holmwood, this could be the fifth largest on-shore source in the UK and it could provide the hydrocarbons required by Surrey for over a decade, yet the locals are not keen for exploration or extraction to occur in this area.

Before Europa can carry out any drilling operations on this site, it will need to obtain consent from Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency and obtain a Mining Waste Permit. It will also need to satisfy the approval of details consents in relation to the main (pan) planning permission. It is hoped that these final consents can be obtained in the next few months, so work can start on site by the middle of next year.

Charles Russell Speechlys LLP
Helen Hutton is Senior Associate at Charles Russell Speechlys LLP.

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