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The battle for Leith Hill – oil exploration in the Surrey Hills

PUBLISHED: 11:41 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:41 06 March 2017

Leith Hill (Photo John Miller)

Leith Hill (Photo John Miller)

John Miller

In this month’s column, Andy Smith, Surrey branch director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), highlights perhaps the most controversial threat yet to Surrey’s cherished but vulnerable Green Belt countryside

Leith Hill (Photo John Miller)Leith Hill (Photo John Miller)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2017

***

THERE is a battle raging right now on Leith Hill, in the heart of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and our local Green Belt. It is a fight to save a precious rural landscape from naked commercial exploitation.

The last time there was a clash of arms on Leith Hill was in AD 851 when Anglo-Saxon King Aethelwulf of Wessex defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ockley – famously the only major battle fought on Surrey soil.

Now, nearly 12 centuries later, the enemy are no longer axe-wielding Norsemen but oil-drilling engineers. Thankfully, no blood has been spilt in this latest conflict, but locally, in the normally peaceful village of Coldharbour, feelings are at boiling point.

The story so far

The current dispute is the latest phase of a protracted environmental war – mostly fought out in council chambers and law courts – between champions of conservation and advocates of unbridled economic growth. The legal wrangling over Leith Hill has, so far, dragged on for more than seven years. On one side, defending the English countryside, are the local campaigners of the Leith Hill Action Group, backed by the CPRE and the wider ‘green’ movement. On the other are the development lobby, the oil industry and their supporters. At stake is the beauty and tranquillity of Leith Hill and the surrounding countryside, with its rolling landscape, ancient woodland and sunken lanes.

The main ‘villain’ of the piece is Europa Oil & Gas. Its mission from the start has been to sink a borehole to explore for oil or gas deposits under the Surrey Hills AONB. Campaigners have justifiably feared that, if the oil industry gets a foothold here, it could set a dangerous precedent, potentially unleashing a wave of drilling across southern England. In the worst-case scenario, it could mean the wholesale industrialisation of our countryside.

The campaign for Leith Hill has been hard-fought, with public inquiries and High Court challenges giving victories alternately to one side and then the other. This to-ing and fro-ing has been frustrating for the campaigners – and deeply dispiriting for local residents, over whom Europa’s scheme hovers like a vast black shadow.

Unfortunately, the current state of play is not good.

The latest round went to Europa and, in consequence, having been granted permission for exploratory oil drilling, the company is now planning on drilling for oil under Leith Hill, using a horizontal drill rig passing under the nearby village of Coldharbour. This involves the felling and clearing of approximately one hectare of natural forest woodland, and then building a tall drilling rig – almost twice the height of the historic and iconic Leith Hill Tower – that will be visible for many miles around.

Peaceful protest

Desperate to stop this development, a group of antidrilling campaigners have set up a “protection camp” on the site. While the CPRE does not condone such militant tactics, it is understandable that people resort to this form of activism when they feel that they have run out of other options.

It is frankly appalling that the planning system cannot adequately protect such a beautiful and fragile environment as Leith Hill. As it is supposedly ‘protected’ countryside, within both the Surrey Hills AONB and the London Green Belt, should it not be sacrosanct?

What has happened here is that a well-funded development lobby has been able to sustain a long and bitter campaign against local people, ultimately outspending and ‘outgunning’ local residents and conservationists. It is very sad.

• For more on the campaign to save Leith Hill, see A Voice For Leith Hill: (voiceforleithhill.co.uk); The Leith Hill Protection Camp (facebook. com/groups/LeithHillCamp); and Leith Hill Action Group (surreycommunity.info/lhag)

***

A view from Europa...

“Holmwood (the Leith Hill site) is a conventional oil exploration prospect, which is to be drilled by a temporary well at Bury Hill Wood,” says Hugh Mackay, CEO of Europa Oil and Gas. “It is no different from the other dozen oil fields that have produced oil over the last 30 years and the 250-plus wells that have been drilled in the Weald Basin of south-east England since the 1930s. All were drilled without environmental incident or any industrialisation of the landscape. Holmwood is not shale gas or shale oil and fracking will not be conducted. Europa is meeting stringent planning and environmental regulations and is regulated by Surrey County Council, The Environment Agency, The Oil & Gas Authority and The Health and Safety Executive. Total activity at the site, including site preparation, drilling and site restoration, is expected to take 18 weeks. Operations may cause temporary disruption to local residents and we will do our utmost to ensure this is kept to a minimum.”

***

What others have to say about Leith Hill oil exploration

The National Trust general manager for the Surrey Hills, David Kennington

“There are multiple landowners at Leith Hill and, as the exploratory borehole is not on our land, the best and most effective course of action has been to oppose this through the planning system. As an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Area of Great Landscape Value, Leith Hill should be afforded the highest status of landscape protection. Leith Hill is one of the few remaining areas of tranquillity in Surrey and we feel this proposal will harm the character of the landscape and have a detrimental impact on the public’s enjoyment of the area. We wrote, at the time of the applications, to oppose these plans in the strongest terms but we have to accept that there has been a democratic process and that our view and that of many others has not prevailed.”

Actress, local resident and founder of Born Free, Virginia McKenna OBE

“Together with so many other Coldharbour residents I have, from the start, been totally opposed to prospecting for oil just outside this remote, rural village, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Such an activity, were it to take place, would fundamentally undermine the integrity of our precious Protected Area network, would ignore the overwhelming wishes of our community, and would threaten the values that the majority hold most dear. The deep-seated concerns we feel are shared by others from further afield, who legitimately reflect a profound desire to protect what’s left of the natural environment and the wildlife of our crowded island. In our peaceful and law-abiding way, we must do everything in our power to demonstrate the depth of our feelings and our resolute opposition to any oil prospecting activities that threaten our home. Our firm hope is that those we elect or those whose salaries we pay, whether at Parish, Borough, County and National level, properly represent the views of those who put them there.”

The chairman of the Surrey Hills Society, Christine Howard

“I am incandescent that planning has been granted for oil exploration at Leith Hill. Leith Hill is the absolute diamond at the heart of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). What is the point of having designations like AONBs and National Parks if the government is going to ignore them?”

***

HAVE YOUR SAY! What do you think? Should our local countryside be protected or should we be handing it over for oil drilling? Let us know by joining us on Facebook and Twitter or sending an e-mail to us at editorial@surreylife.co.uk

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