Activists and Liberal Democrats have slammed the government after a minister overruled a Tory-led council to approve gas drilling at the edge of the Surrey Hills, despite accepting the project would harm the natural landscape.
The decision, officially announced in a written statement by Housing Minister Stuart Andrew, gives the go-ahead for three years of exploratory drilling at a site near the edge of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The site is in the South West Surrey constituency of Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, who strongly opposes the scheme.
Campaigners said the decision showed an “obsession” with finding new fossil fuel developments and would be likely to provoke protests.
The plan was rejected by Surrey County Council, but a subsequent public inquiry recommended that it be pursued, a decision which was then assessed by the Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities, who approved it .
This means energy company UK Oil and Gas will be allowed to operate a fracking-free gas well near Dunsfold, south of Guildford, near the AONB boundary, with permission for a new road junction, d an access road and a fence around the border. .
The decision – taken by Andrew after Michael Gove, the leveling secretary, recused himself because his constituency is in a neighboring part of Surrey – accepted that the drilling would involve “a significant level of landscape and visual impacts of the proposal”, including the loss of hedgerows, which is mitigated by the finite duration of the exploitation.
Noting that permitting the project contravened Surrey’s own guidelines, the decision also acknowledged that it had “not been demonstrated that the site had been selected to minimize adverse environmental impacts”.
The proposal, he added, “would harm the landscape character and appearance of the area and degrade the qualities of the AONB setting”, saying that while the impact on the AONB would be limited, the area “is of high sensitivity”.
The ministerial decision said “limited” weight should be given to any local economic benefits, but the overall assessment was that “exploration and appraisal are a necessary part of mineral development and without them, presently recognized benefits of production cannot be realized”.
Although the decision is unrelated to fracking, allowing an exploratory gas drilling site in such a location will bring back memories of past protests against fracking projects.
After significant local opposition, as well as concerns about the possibility of earthquakes, fracking has been halted in the UK since 2019. In April, ministers announced a study into its safety, suggesting that the practice, which is popular with some Tory MPs, could be resumed.
Greenpeace said ministers had an “unhealthy obsession with finding new fossil fuels”. Doug Parr, its UK political director, said: ‘With this decision, the government is completely undermining local democracy, planning laws meant to protect our designated landscapes and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.’
Tom Fyans, policy officer at rural charity CPRE, said the decision was “an absurd decision that is sure to provoke fury and despair”, and was likely to trigger mass protests. He said: ‘It is extraordinary, given the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, that the government sees fit to greenlight a gas field and damage the framework of an area of a outstanding natural beauty.”
The decision will be seized by the Liberal Democrats, who campaign in the so-called blue wall – the suburban belt seats held by the Tories mainly around London where discontent with the Tories, and in particular Boris Johnson, makes them politically vulnerable.
While Hunt’s seat is relatively secure, the site closely adjoins the constituency of Guildford, where incumbent Tory MP Angela Richardson has a majority of just over 3,000 over the Lib Dems.
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said he was “shameful the Tories have ignored the concerns of local communities” and endorsed the scheme. “Michael Gove must reconsider this reckless decision which risks causing irreparable damage to our precious campaign while undermining efforts to address the climate emergency,” he said.
UK Oil and Gas has been contacted for comment.