Surrey Hills Society tackle the future of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
PUBLISHED: 11:14 31 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:10 31 March 2017
Chairman of the Surrey Hills Society, Christine Howard, seeks some reassurance about the future of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2017
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With all the controversial planning applications being debated within the Surrey Hills Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty (AONB) recently, I decided to talk to the Surrey Hills AONB planning advisor, Clive Smith, to get some answers.
First, I asked about the exploratory oil and gas drilling at Leith Hill, covered in the December edition of Surrey Life. The proposal is to take six weeks to deliver and set up a drilling rig and supporting structures, six weeks to drill and test and six weeks to dismantle. The site would then be restored and landscaped.
“Surrey County Council (SCC) refused planning permission in 2011 and Europa Oil and Gas Ltd lodged an appeal. Following a public inquiry, the appeal Inspector dismissed the appeal on Green Belt and AONB grounds,” Clive comments. “He broadly accepted the case presented at the inquiry by the Surrey Hills AONB. Europa Oil and Gas subsequently appealed to the High Court. The High Court upheld the appeal because the Inspector had misinterpreted Green Belt policy. This resulted in a second public inquiry in 2015.The second appeal inspector also agreed the AONB would be harmed but it would be limited to a very short period and would be fully reversible with the site restoration. He further concluded that the exploration of minerals is in the national interest and his recommended conditions would minimise the vast majority of impacts.”
“At the end of 2016, another application was submitted to enlarge the site for security fencing to be extended to Coldharbour Lane. This was to give more effective security from anticipated demonstrations to allow the work to be contained within the 18 weeks. If oil and/or gas is found that would be economically viable to extract, further planning permission would be needed to extract it. If oil or gas is not found that would be the end of the matter and the landscape would be restored.”
Not a planning matter
A rather odd issue arose at Newlands Corner in 2016, which had locals protesting loudly to SCC but sorting the facts from fiction was rather difficult. The Surrey Hills AONB Board has been criticised for not getting involved in this debate. I asked Clive why this was.
“There has been much publicity about what is happening at Newlands Corner, which started with an application to charge for car parking. This though, is not a planning matter and the physical impact on the AONB of three pay and display machines is regarded as being minimal.”
I asked him about all the talk of a new visitor centre at this popular site? “If a new visitor centre is proposed, together with any rearrangement of the car park layout, then I will need to assess the proposal on its merits as to any harm or benefits it may have on the AONB,” Clive replied.
What about the news that approval has been given for 2,600 dwellings and commercial development at Dunsfold Aerodrome? Clive explains, “Although the site lies just beyond the AONB, the main concern is that the substantial additional traffic will use several unsuitable country lanes in the Surrey Hills AONB as rat runs to avoid worsening congestion on the A281. These increases in traffic will spoil the character and relative tranquillity of the AONB.”
The latest worrying development pressure on the Surrey Hills comes from proposals seeking to meet Government policy that large new houses in the countryside can be acceptable if their designs are truly outstanding and innovative. They are accompanied by substantive submissions from teams of planning, architect and landscape consultants. I asked Clive his thoughts on this development. He says, “The tests of acceptability seem to be increasingly easy to satisfy and the impact these will have on the AONB, both individually and collectively over the decades, I believe, sometimes seems not to be fully appreciated or given sufficient weight.”