The North Downs in all its stunning beauty

The North Downs needs your help: Europa Oil and Gas wants to erect a 120ft high exploratory drilling rig on Bury Hill Wood, Holmwood, Surrey, a local riding spot favoured by London riders and mbr magazine.

For three years now the Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG), formed from local residents, has been fighting the application, on a shoestring budget. The LHAG won the first round; the hearing at Kingston-upon-Thames County Hall decided last May that the drilling should not go ahead.

Europa subsequently launched an appeal and now the LHAG urgently needs to raise £50,000 to pay for legal fees and expert testimony.

Go to the Group’s website if you can help out, or read their newsletter, printed below.

 

The Initial Foray

This fight started in earnest in February 2009, when the individuals that would later band together to form Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG) first became aware of the issue.

The first job in March 2009 for the newly established LHAG was to counter the planning application prepared in October 2008 by The Barton Willmore Planning Partnership on behalf of Europa Oil and Gas.  In a story that would become only too familiar, this had to be done in a very tight timeframe.  LHAG’s initial 44-page reponse was submitted to Surrey County Council in April 2009.

As a result of this response, Surrey County Council requested further information from Europa, which was finally supplied in December 2009.  LHAG then had just 28 days to respond to this (and this over the Christmas period!)  A Herculean effort resulted in LHAG’s additional second 40-page response being submitted on 15th January 2010.

This pattern was repeated in early 2011.  Further information was requested and supplied and LHAG was given another 28 day timeline to react, which resulted in the third response on 14th April 2011

The Planning Hearing

This first phase of the story culminated in an incredible day at County Hall in Kingston-upon-Thames on 25th May 2011.  LHAG co-ordinated the presentation of carefully scripted and rehearsed arguments against the application by four of its committee and a representative of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England – each had a strict three minutes and no more.  In addition, two county councillors spoke from the floor against the application.  Additional pressure was present in the form of BBC London News filming the hearing; such is the interest in our campaign.

Debate between the councillors then lasted for three hours, whilst the scores of residents who had travelled to watch looked on enthralled (and not always as quietly as Europa might have liked).  The final result was a decision against the application!

All this work and each of these truly excellent and professional responses were the result of hundreds of hours of work by the LHAG committee, all in their spare time and all, needless to say, for free.  It was a real-life “little guy versus the big corporation” story, lasting for over two years and it had, for now, the necessary happy ending.  However, whilst the battle had been won, the war was far from over.

The Appeal

The official refusal of the application was confirmed in mid-June.  This gave Europa until mid-December to appeal.

Just when we had begun to think that this deadline might pass unheralded, the appeal was submitted.  Once again, Europa had chosen to act just before Christmas.  Once again, LHAG had to act within a very tight timeframe.

The principal parties to an appeal would normally the applicant (Europa) and the Authority (Surrey County Council, “SCC”).  But because all the arguments that saw the application denied had been made by LHAG and not by SCC’s officers, LHAG sought and was granted (in January 2012) a special status under Rule 6 of the rules on planning inquiries.

Having Rule 6 Status means that LHAG is a full party to the appeal.  It has the right to appoint its own barrister, who can cross-examine Europa and its representatives.  It can also present its own evidence, including testimony of Expert Witnesses.  Although LHAG stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Surrey County Council, it remains an independent party in the Inquiry.

LHAG’s Involvement in the Inquiry

The parties were required to submit their Statements of Case in early February.  This is an outline of the legal and technical arguments that they will present at the Inquiry.  LHAG were pleased to able to instruct the same barrister who had provided invaluable advice prior to the May Committee.  Work now is focussing on the drafting of LHAG’s formal Proofs of Evidence by expert witnesses including an oil production consultant, an ecological consultant and a highways expert.

As much of this as possible is being done within the LHAG committee, but we are dealing with professionals and where we do not have, or cannot beg, appropriate levels of specialist expertise, we have to buy it in.

This, and the legal fees, is why we need to raise £50,000 in such a short period of time.

Since 2005, it has been possible to appoint a barrister directly, without the need to involve solicitors.  In order to save costs, this has been the approach taken by LHAG.  This means that all the work ordinarily done by solicitors – reviewing thousands of pages of documents, organising case files, setting up briefs – is being undertaken by committee members of LHAG.  Once again, it has fallen on the shoulders of a few volunteers to undertake hundreds and hundreds of man-hours of work in their spare time.

The Future

The Public Inquiry is now set to run from 10th to 20th July in Dorking Halls.  The more people that can attend and show support, the better.  Once again, it is crucial that we all demonstrate to the decision-makers the depth of feeling on this application.

As you can see, this fight has been going on a long time and we’ll keep on fighting it.  We have commitment and we have expertise.  With your help, we’ll finish this.

Patrick Nolan

Fundraising Committee, The Leith Hill Action Group