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Major legal challenge to decision to allow exploratory oil and gas well in Surrey

Campaigners have issued a major legal challenge to a government decision to allow an exploratory oil and gas well to be dug in Dunsfold in the vicinity of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Posted on 21 July 2022

Protect Dunsfold Ltd, supported by the Good Law Project (GLP) and represented by law firm Leigh Day alongside barristers Estelle Dehon QC and Alex Shattock, has this week issued a statutory challenge to the Local Government Secretary’s decision to give planning permission to the project on appeal.

Protect Dunsfold Ltd and GLP say the legal issues at stake have broad AONB and climate change implications and are likely to be relevant in other cases involving exploratory investigations for hydrocarbon extraction.
The application to construct the exploratory well at Land South of Dunsfold Road and East of High Loxley Road, Dunsfold, Surrey, was refused twice by Surrey County Council, but UK Oil & Gas (UKOG) appealed to the Secretary of State, then Michael Gove.
The Planning Inspector then recommended approval of the plan and Mr Gove’s department decided to give permission for the project at its exploratory stage.
The plan involves construction, operation and decommissioning of a well site. The work will mean building an exploratory borehole and a sidetrack borehole, an access track, a junction with High Loxley Road, work on the junction of High Loxley Road and Dunsfold Road, and a boundary fence and gates. It would be located in the Surrey Hills Area of Great Landscape Value, adjacent to the AONB.
Protect Dunsfold Ltd will argue that the decision to allow permission for exploration is inconsistent with the policies of the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) which protect AONBs and those which require consideration to be given to the radical reductions required in greenhouse gas emissions.
The inspector said overall harms to the AONB would be moderate overall, but Protect Dunsfold Ltd say the AONB issue should have been given more weight.
Failure to follow national planning policy without good reason is unlawful, and the NPPF states: “Great weight should be given to conserving and enhancing landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which have the highest status of protection in relation to these issues.”
It will also be argued that it is inconsistent of the Planning Inspector and the Secretary of State to give weight to the downstream benefits of the scheme but not the downstream negative impacts such as carbon emissions. The Inspector’s Report and the Secretary of State’s Decision Letter both state that they cannot consider the benefits of later gas extraction, but both give weight to the economic benefits of later production on the site.
Protect Dunsfold Ltd spokesperson Sarah Godwin said:
"Protect Dunsfold has fought consistently for the past three years to represent the concerns of those most impacted by UKOG’s application for exploratory drilling. 
Neither local nor national interest is served by imposing a project harmful to one of the nation’s most sensitive landscapes by inflicting such industrial activity whilst brushing the environmental consequences of continued fossil fuel exploration under the rug. The muddled logic of the Secretary of State’s decision speaks volumes whilst riding roughshod over local democracy and policy. We are delighted to be challenging the decision with the full support of the GLP and our expert advocacy team."
Jo Maugham, Director of Good Law Project, said:
"We have some questions. Why, in the aftermath of the hottest day ever, are we wanting to dig up more fossil fuels? Why are we doing it next to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty? And why is Government afraid to let the people of Surrey make their own decisions about what works for their community?
"We are proud to stand side by side with Protect Dunsfold."
Leigh Day solicitor Ricardo Gama said:
“This important case will determine whether the government’s approach to assessing the greenhouse gas, landscape and other impacts of hydrocarbon development such as this was lawful, particularly given the sensitive location of the site in close proximity to the Surrey Hills AONB. Our clients hope to overturn the government decision as they believe it sets a damaging precedent for other similar developments.”

Ricardo Gama November 2021
Climate change Environment Judicial review Planning

Ricardo Gama

Ricardo specialises in environmental claims and planning law

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