Fury at government after council overruled on Surrey Hills gas drilling

Campaigners and the Liberal Democrats have condemned the government after a minister overruled a Tory-run council to approve gas drilling on the edge of the Surrey Hills, despite accepting the scheme would cause harm to the natural landscape.

Under this government nowhere will be safe from drilling. – Owl

Peter Walker www.theguardian.com 

The decision, formally announced in a written statement by the housing minister Stuart Andrew, gives the green light to three years of exploratory drilling at a site near the edge of the Surrey Hills area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).

The site is in the South West Surrey constituency of Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, who strongly opposes the project.

Campaigners said the decision showed an “obsession” with finding new fossil fuel developments, and that it would be likely to provoke protests.

The plan was rejected by Surrey county council, but a subsequent public inquiry recommended it should go ahead, a decision which was then assessed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which approved it.

It means the energy company UK Oil and Gas will be allowed to operate a non-fracking gas well near Dunsfold, south of Guildford, close to the boundary of the AONB, with permission for a new road junction, access route and fence around the boundary.

The decision – made by Andrew after Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, recused himself because his constituency is in a nearby part of Surrey – accepted the drilling would involve “a significant level of landscape and visual impacts from the proposal”, including the loss of hedgerows, something mitigated by the finite period of operation.

Noting that allowing the project contravened Surrey’s own guidance, the decision also conceded “it has not been demonstrated that the site has been selected to minimise adverse environmental impacts”.

The proposal, it added, “would result in harm to the landscape character and appearance of the area and degrade the qualities of the setting of the AONB”, saying that while the impact on the AONB would be limited, the area “is of a high sensitivity”.

The ministerial decision said “limited” weight should be given to any local economic benefits, but that the overall assessment was “exploration and appraisal are a necessary part of mineral development and without it, the currently acknowledged benefits of production cannot be realised”.

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While the decision is unconnected to fracking, permission for an exploratory gas drilling site in such a location will resurrect memories of prior protests against fracking schemes.

Following significant local opposition, along with concerns about the possibility of earth tremors, fracking has been paused in the UK since 2019. In April, ministers announced a study into its safety, raising expectations that the practice, which is popular with some Conservative MPs, could be resumed.

Greenpeace said ministers had an “unhealthy obsession with finding new fossil fuels”. Doug Parr, its UK policy director, said: “With this decision the government is completely undermining local democracy, the planning laws that are supposed to protect our designated landscapes and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.”

Tom Fyans, the head of policy at the countryside charity CPRE said the move was “an absurd decision that’s guaranteed to provoke fury and despair”, and would be likely to prompt mass protests. He said: “It’s extraordinary, given the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, that the government sees fit to green-light a gas field and damage the setting of an area of outstanding natural beauty.”

The decision will be seized on by the Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning heavily in the so-called blue wall – Tory-held commuter belt seats mainly around London where discontent with the Conservatives, and especially with Boris Johnson, makes them politically vulnerable.

While Hunt’s seat is relatively safe, the site closely adjoins the Guildford constituency, where the sitting Tory MP, Angela Richardson, has a majority of just above 3,000 over the Lib Dems.

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said it was “shameful that the Conservatives have ignored the concerns of local communities” and approved the scheme. “Michael Gove must reconsider this reckless decision which risks doing irreparable damage to our treasured countryside while undermining efforts to tackle the climate emergency,” he said.

UK Oil and Gas was contacted for comment.