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20 August 2015

Positive Inspector’s decision for hydrocarbon exploration

An Inspector has allowed an appeal by AIM listed Europa Oil & Gas (Holdings) plc to carry out short term conventional hydrocarbon exploration, at Holmwood, in the Weald Basin.

The application was submitted in 2008, but refused by Surrey County Council’s planning committee, contrary to the planning officer’s recommendation, in 2011. An Inspector in 2012 did not allow the first appeal, but that Inspector’s decision was quashed in the High Court in 2013.

The High Court decision confirmed that hydrocarbon exploration fell within the definition of mineral extraction within the National Planning Policy Framework (and local policies) and so it could benefit from the same exemptions from the usual restrictions which apply to other forms of development in the Green Belt.

The Court of Appeal then upheld the High Court judgment, in 2014, after Leith Hill Action Group challenged that decision.

Earlier this year, Europa then made a second appeal against the original refusal and that appeal has now been allowed.

The Inspector confirmed that the proposed exploration scheme would not be inappropriate development in the Green Belt. The fact that the operations would be very short term and entirely reversible would ensure the permanence of the Green Belt and greatly reduce harm to it.

The wholly reversible nature and possible long term benefits would also reduce the impact on the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to well below the threshold of significant. Other issues raised at the Inquiry, such as traffic impacts, were found not to be compelling, as they could be dealt with effectively and safely.

The Inspector confirmed that no alternative site has been established, which would provide an alternative drill site.

The exploration for and mining of minerals is encouraged by national policy. If hydrocarbons are found at Holmwood, this could be the fifth largest on-shore source in the UK.

Before Europa (as the licence holder) can carry out any drilling operations, which will include a horizontal drill well, it will need to obtain consent from Health and Safety Executive, obtain a Mining Waste Permit and secure planning for the underground lateral drill well, for which a separate planning application is currently being considered by Surrey County Council.

Helen Hutton, who has led the Charles Russell Speechlys Planning & Environment team at each stage of the case’s progress through the Courts and both Inquiries, commented:

This case is important for the hydrocarbon industry in the UK. Both Courts confirmed that the same Green Belt exemptions apply for exploration as for mineral extraction. We are delighted for the Europa team that the second Inspector has applied this logical interpretation of planning policy to the facts of the case and allowed this long-running appeal.”

Hugh Mackay said:

I am very pleased at the strong support Charles Russell Speechlys has consistently provided Europa with over a long and difficult process involving the High Court, Court of Appeal and Planning Inquiry”.

Mark Howard, Client Relationship Partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, said:

"We are absolutely delighted to have been able to assist long standing client Europa to finally secure planning approval for the Holmwood test well following last year's successful court of appeal ruling. We now hope that the pan handle application will be similarly successful enabling Europa and its partners to press on with the Holmwood prospect".

This article was written by Helen Hutton. For more information please contact Helen on +44 (0)20 7203 5314 or at