No drill on Leith Hill
How local residents fought a 10 year battle to defend Leith Hill and its mountain bike trails from oil developers… and won.
For 10 years, woodland near Leith Hill in Surrey has been under threat from developers looking to drill for oil in Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and with it sacrifice many of the most popular mountain bike trails in the South-East.
Originally granted planning permission after a Public Enquiry, the decision was challenged again and again by local residents, and last month the oil company capitulated and their plans to erect a 120ft drilling rig near Coldharbour near Dorking came crashing down.
“We deeply appreciate all the support from everyone in the dark times but this was about more than this corner of Surrey,” said Patrick Nolan from the Leith Hill Action Group (LHAG), who coordinated the campaign against drillers Europa Oil and Gas. “A huge part of this was making the point a company should not be able to rock up to AONB and greenbelt, enjoyed by millions for recreation, and just do something with no challenge, so it was fight was worth having regardless of the outcome,” he explains.
It was a fight the LHAG, and everyone who rides in the bucolic area, very nearly lost. “We had six months to raise £50,000 to pay for a barrister to mount a legal challenge,” explains Patrick, of the early days in 2009 when the LHAG was formed to fight Europa’s application for planning permission in 2008. “I can’t emphasise enough the overwhelming responsibility when people are giving you money, in some cases a lot, to represent them.
“Later, we lost a second Public Enquiry in 2015 and Europa was given planning permission for the first time, and we felt guilty we’d spent people’s money,” he says. “But they carried on giving.”
Conditions were looking harder by now for the oil drillers though, because there were 23 conditions imposed on Europa from the Public Enquiry to be fulfilled before drilling could start, conditions it turned out they could never meet. These conditions included details about traffic management, the time frame for drilling and additional fencing.
“Sometimes it’s a collection of things lead to the victory,” Patrick says. “We never wanted to be a gatekeeper for protest, we had wanted to have other groups protesting.” They came along in the form of the Forest Protectors (previously known as eco-warriors), camping out in the woods to hinder and obstruct the oil developers.
Finally, in September this year the Forestry Commission, who manages the land, decided not to renew planning permission for Europa to drill. So how did the LHAG win out over the oil giants? How did David beat Goliath? Patrick believes a big part of it was that traffic would have been hugely disrupted: Europa needed to transport heavy machinery through the winding, tortuous sunken lanes leading to the site, lanes that can’t squeeze two cars through at some points.
Is this just a case for Nimbyism then, we asked Patrick? “No, because there are a million visitors a year to this specific bit of AONB, in particular it’s a popular spot for people who live in London,” he says. “Those people relying on having somewhere to come and enjoy.”
There are bigger issues for the rest of the country too, sending a message to industry that it’s not easy, cheap or quick to develop in protected land: “That helps everybody in AONBs, greenbelts and National Parks,” Patrick says.
Leith Hill was lucky, though, Patrick admits, because the area could rely on donations from wealthy patrons to fight the application, something other areas of the country might not be able to afford to do. “I don’t think that’s right,” he says, “we should all be able to do this, to protect our recreation and rest areas, and we should all have areas that are sacrosanct.”
So what of Europa? They haven’t given up on the oil seam just yet, instead they’ll be looking for alternative drill sites, the company said in a statement. Europa haven’t yet responded to our requests for comment.