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High Court

Sussex residents’ bid to save Area of Outstanding Natural beauty from oil exploration project

A Sussex residents’ association has launched a High Court challenge to try to save an Area of Outstanding Natural beauty from an oil exploration project.

Posted on 30 March 2023

The Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association has applied for permission for a statutory review of the decision by the planning inspector to grant planning permission for a four-stage drilling operation on land off London Road, near to the ancient woodlands of Lower Stumble Wood and Lower Beanham Wood within a Drinking Water Protection Area.

The inspector allowed an appeal by Angus Energy Weald Basin No 3 Limited after West Sussex County Council refused planning permission for the oil exploration project in March 2021.

Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association, acting through resident Sue Taylor, is asking the court to quash planning permission. Defendants in the claim are Angus Energy Weald Basin No 3, West Sussex County Council and the Housing and Communities Secretary.

The proposed operation would involve four weeks of pumping to remove wellbore fluids followed by two weeks of earth moving. An extended well test would continue for 12 months, with a continually burning flare and running generator. If the operation did not result in planning permission for longer term oil drilling, two months of plugging and site restoration would be needed.

In his report published last month, the planning inspector concluded that the “national need” for “continued hydrocarbon exploration and assessment in the interests of energy supply security pending ultimate transition “is the overriding consideration and . . . exceptional justification for permitting this major development within the High Weald AONB”.

Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association (FFBRA) is represented by law firm Leigh Day, as well as barristers David Wolfe KC and Merrow Golden. FFBRA say the only sensible reading of the inspector’s letter is that he concluded there was only a need for hydrocarbon exploration because that might result in the discovery of commercial reserves, to help supply the national need for domestic hydrocarbon. Having judged the need case on the basis of those purported benefits, the inspector – it will be argued – should have also taken into account the harm to the environment from the realisation of that energy supply.

FFBRA says the inspector:

  • Acted irrationally by only taking into account benefits, but not the harms, of the future extraction of hydrocarbons
  • Unlawfully interpreted and/or applied policy M7 of the West Sussex Joint Local Minerals Plan 2018
  • Failed to consider alternatives to development in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as required under the exceptional circumstances test in national and local policy.
  • Failed to comply with the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017 with no consideration of whether the development was an integral part of a wider project and no consideration of the environmental effects of emissions.
  • Failed to consider the development’s impacts on climate change
  • Failed to assess (or take into account an assessment of) impact on water courses.

Sue Taylor said:

“For 10 years now we have been fighting to protect this tranquil Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty from the oil and gas industry. When, in 2021, West Sussex County Council voted unanimously to reject Angus Energy’s planning application, we thought Balcombe had been saved. We were devastated when the Government Planning Inspector overturned the decision. 

“We are concerned about air pollution, as the lie of the land and prevailing winds would direct noxious fumes from the flare into the heart of our village. Add to this potential water pollution, noise and light pollution, heavy traffic, as well as disruption of natural habitats. Not least, we worry about the consequences on climate, for the people of our village, and beyond.”

Leigh Day environment team solicitor Rowan Smith said:

“Our client believes that there are serious flaws in the Government’s reasoning for approving the oil tests. Most notably, they say that the supposed benefits of the commercial oil have been taken into account, but the climate change harms have not.

“It will be argued that this led to a deliberately unbalanced, and therefore unlawful, conclusion on the planning merits. The campaigners we represent have been doggedly opposed to fossil fuel development in the heart of the Sussex AONB for over a decade, and we will continue to represent them in their legal fight for environmental justice.”     

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Rowan Smith
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Rowan Smith

Rowan Smith is a senior associate solicitor in the human rights department.

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