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Balcombe Sussex

Court of Appeal will hear legal case against oil exploration and development in Balcombe, Sussex Area of Outstanding National Beauty

Campaigners taking legal action against a hydrocarbon exploration and appraisal development in Balcombe, Sussex, have been granted permission to have their case heard in the Court of Appeal.

Posted on 12 June 2024

The appeal by Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association (FFBRA) comes after onshore gas and oil development company Angus Energy was granted permission by a planning inspector in February 2023 to conduct an exploratory well test for oil near the village of Balcombe in Sussex.

The well test is scheduled to run for up to a year and, if successful, likely to lead to long-term oil production in the area, which is a designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) – one of 34 countryside spaces across England protected in order to conserve and enhance its natural beauty.

Village residents in Balcombe argue that the oil well test, which is planned to involve a continually burning flare and running generator, will have a devastating impact on the village and local environment, as well as contribute to the global climate crisis via the release of greenhouse emissions.

A recent Freedom of Information Request made by a member of FFBRA has yielded evidence that corroborates concerns at the time of the likely adverse impact the proposed development will have on local water resources, namely the Ardingly Reservoir. It is argued that impact was wrongly downplayed by the High Court judge.

Balcombe residents have been battling oil drilling work in the area since 2013, having taken part in various protests after oil and gas company Cuadrilla was given a licence to drill.

An application by the campaigners for a statutory review of the decision to grant permission to Angus Energy for oil drilling was dismissed in October 2023. However, FFBRA, represented by solicitors at Leigh Day and barristers David Wolfe KC (Matrix), Merrow Golden (Francis Taylor Buildings) and Ruchi Parekh (Cornerstone), have now been granted permission to appeal against the ruling and are awaiting to learn the date of the hearing.

In granting permission to appeal, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith found that the appeal arguments “raise important issues about the proper approach to planning applications to relating to the exploration for or production of hydrocarbons on which (further) guidance from the Court of Appeal is desirable”.

The grounds of the appeal are:

  • The judge was wrong to hold that the planning inspector did not take into account the benefits of the future extraction of hydrocarbons, whilst excluding the harms of it.
  • The judge failed to correctly interpret policies from the West Sussex Joint Local Minerals Plan 2018, by ignoring that the future production phase may include hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as fracking).
  • The judge did not correctly consider the exceptional circumstances relating to the development being in an AONB, by misinterpreting the legal test and failing to properly consider alternatives outside of the AONB.
  • The judge wrongly dismissed the complaint that the inspector had failed to take into account the development’s impact on  Ardingly Reservoir.

Sue Taylor, chair of the FFBRA, said:

“Our fight goes on. The idea of establishing a new oil field in countryside that has been deservedly designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was so wrong. We are hopeful that this dangerous decision will be overturned by the Court of Appeal.”

Local resident Rachel Hall said:

“A little bit of my faith in the justice system has been restored,’ she says. It is the job of all of us to ensure the future for the next generation is a greener one and one that respects the place we all call home.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said:

“We are delighted that our clients in Balcombe have been granted permission to take their challenge to the Court of Appeal. We believe that several key issues were overlooked in the judge’s initial decision to reject a statutory review, and now look ahead to making our appeal in Court. It is vitally important that we uphold the preservation of protected areas, and that the significant harms of future oil extraction are considered are balanced against any purported future benefits.”

Rowan Smith
Climate change Environment Human rights Judicial review Planning Wildlife

Rowan Smith

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

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