There are 46 recognised Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty spread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These sites, considered to be some of the finest landscapes in the country, are protected under the 1949 National Parks and Access to Countryside Act, as well as the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act. The apparent purpose of this designation and protection scheme is to ensure that the fragile natural beauty of these areas is conserved and enhanced. In addition, the AONB designation aims to meet the need for quiet enjoyment of the countryside, whilst simultaneously having regard for the interests of those who live and work there.
One might assume, therefore, that carrying out exploratory drilling for oil might not be permitted in such areas, yet this is exactly what is being proposed – and is on the verge of being successfully pushed through – at Leith Hill in Surrey.
Not just an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but also an Area of Great Landscape Value, Leith Hill is seen by many as the jewel of the Surrey Hills. A great place to hike, cycle or just enjoy some family time together, Leith Hill is an area synonymous with tranquillity, rich in wildlife and boasting some stunning views of the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, it is also an area which has caught the attention of Europa Oil and Gas (Ltd), who since 2009 have been seeking permission to explore the area for hydrocarbons, with a view to extracting oil. Despite Europa’s own claim that there is only a 30% chance of detecting hydrocarbons, the company has continued to file a series of planning applications and legal appeals.
Naturally, local citizens have fought hard to stop Europa, alongside the Surrey Hills AONB Board, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In the early stages of proceedings it looked as if Europa’s hopes would be dashed as Surrey County Council refused the initial application. However, in a crushing blow to local democracy and in the apparent “national interest” this was overturned by appeal to the High Courts.
So what now? Sadly, after years of back and forth it seems that Europa may have finally secured the right to carry out the exploratory drilling, pending some final application approvals. What this means for the area could be devastating. Not only does the drilling jeopardise the safety of the local water supply, it could also have permanent damaging effects on the surrounding countryside and the wildlife that inhabits it.
It has been estimated that the project will involve over 1000 heavy goods vehicles having to make their way up the hill to the drilling site which is located near the picturesque village of Coldharbour. Not only is this likely to cause severe congestion and risk road safety, but will also likely cause significant damage to the delicate sandstone banks of the sunken lanes, which are home to a number of highly endangered species such as dormice. In addition, the banks themselves are not only incredibly delicate, but also unique, historic and – most importantly – irreplaceable. Even one collision between an HGV and the high banks could have a devastating effect, not only to the bank but also to the trees whose roots hold the sandstone together in many places. Despite Europa’s claims that their HGVs will be able to pass along the sunken lanes, their simulations are flawed and it is naive to think that not one collision will occur with over 1000 vehicles using the roads.
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As well as a sudden increase to road traffic, a combination of gas flaring and bore hole venting during the proposed drilling will also cause significant air pollution which can have a range of negative effects on local residents and wildlife. As well as badgers, foxes and deer, Leith Hill is also home to a number of bird species, some of which are on the RSPB Red List, meaning that they are globally endangered and that their numbers are in rapid decline. And it’s not just pollution that threatens the wildlife on Leith Hill, as areas of land will also need to be clear felled to accommodate the operation, leading to wildlife habitat loss.
Perhaps most concerning of all are the plans to erect a 35 metre high oil rig, which will stand at twice the height of Leith Tower, making it one of the highest points in the area. Not only will the rig require an aircraft warning light due to its height, it will also be fully illuminated at night, with the surrounding compound being floodlit for security and safety measures. This is very likely to cause havoc for the number of owl and bat species who rely on the natural darkness of the area to carry out their nocturnal hunts. Such a disturbance could drive these creatures away. Not only would that be a great shame for the area, but could also have implications upon the local ecosystem.
With so much at stake you have to wonder, how and why can this project be allowed to continue? The answer, as always, is money. Prior to Leith Hill being selected by Europa Oil and Gas, five other sites were also assessed yet deemed unsuitable. The reasons given by Europa for not choosing either of these alternative sites were wide ranging but in some cases included highway capacity issues and historical and ecological importance. As it transpires, all the reasons given for not selecting the other sites also apply to the site at Leith Hill. The only difference being an existing track-way of compacted hard-standing at Leith Hill which will reduce primary set-up costs for Europa. It seems the historical and ecological importance is secondary to Europa’s bottom line.
In 1945, as the Second World War came to an end, architect-planner John Dower delivered a report to the Government suggesting that certain natural areas required legal protection. As our country moved forwards into an era of optimism and confidence, he recognised the importance of our natural environment, and the joy it could provide for generations to come. John Dower’s report eventually led to the The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which in turn brought with it the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation. These terms were more than just labels though, they meant something. They were a message to future generations that the land we live upon is sacred, beautiful and worthy of protection. It seems that this message goes unheard these days however, as commercialisation and capitalism tear through national parks, metropolitan greenbelts and areas of outstanding natural beauty, with little regard for what gets left in their wake.
What can I do?
The campaign that has been fought tirelessly at Leith Hill is far from over. The ball may be somewhat in Europa’s court at present, but they have still yet to secure all necessary permissions to begin drilling. Thankfully a group of hardworking activists at Leith Hill Action Group continue to scrutinise every planning application that Europa submit, and have been working non-stop raising funds for appeals and inquiries for several years. If you wish to help the cause by making a donation, then please click here.
A Voice for Leith Hill are a community group of local artists, musicians and environmentalists who aim to raise awareness concerning the proposed drilling, and peacefully protest against it via a range of local events. If you wish to get involved with their movement, then please visit their Facebook page.
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