‘Absurd’: Minister approves gas drilling on edge of Surrey Hills AONB

The housing minister has approved controversial plans for three years of gas exploration near an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in Surrey, but rejected planning permission for two other shale gas drilling schemes in the north of England.

On Tuesday, housing minister Stuart Andrew published three written decisions on gas drilling projects which had been rejected by local councils, approving one project near the Surrey Hills AONB, despite accepting in his report that “there are significant harms to the character and appearance of the landscape from the proposal”. 

Tory-run Surrey County Council had rejected the proposals put forward by energy company UK Oil and Gas (UKOG), but a subsequent public inquiry led by the Planning Inspectorate later recommended it should go ahead. 

UKOG will be permitted to construct and operate a non-fracking gas well for three years near Dunsfold, south of Guildford, close to the boundary of the AONB. The planning permission also includes plans to construct a new access track to the site, and a new highway junction.

The ministerial decision conceded that the proposal had failed to demonstrate that the site had been selected to “minimise adverse environmental impacts”, but said this was afforded only “moderate weight”, along with the harm to local businesses. 

However, the decision letter states that “the benefits of the gas exploration/appraisal phase [are afforded] great weight”.

Commenting in the Guardian, Tom Fyans, head of policy at the countryside charity CPRE, said the minister had made “an absurd decision that’s guaranteed to provoke fury and despair”.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s UK policy director, said: “With this decision the government is completely undermining local democracy, the planning laws that are supposed to protect our designated landscapes, and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.”

However, campaigners in the north of England have said that they are “absolutely ecstatic” that the government has refused the application of another proposed gas exploration scheme in Woodsetts, near Rotherham, south Yorkshire. 

In this case, the minister overruled planning inspector, Katie Peerless, who had advised that the project be approved. The applicant, Ineos Upstream Ltd, had proposed a temporary acoustic fence be constructed on the site to mitigate noise pollution, and Peerless had ruled that despite the impact this would have on the openness of the greenbelt land, the plans should be approved on the basis that national policy support for the benefits of shale gas exploration carried “significant weight”. 

However, in Andrew’s decision letter, he wrote that the "secretary of state differs from the inspector in the weight he assigns to policy support for the proposal, which he considers to carry moderate weight rather than the significant weight assigned by the inspector... He further does not agree with the inspector's assessment... that the harmful impacts of the development would be outweighed by the policy support."

The third decision made this week, rejecting plans for a gas drilling in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, was in line with the inspector’s previous advice.

Andrew’s report said that the secretary of state agreed that the appeal proposal would “give rise to unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions” of between 3.3 to 21.3 kt CO2 equivalent.

The decision letter added: “He further agrees that this is a material consideration that weighs significantly against the proposal in the planning balance.”