Michael Gove

Earlier this month (January 9), we learned the proposal from UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) to drill for hydrocarbons in the heart of the Surrey countryside has now been given the green light following protracted legal wrangling. Given how hard myself and colleagues on Waverley Borough Council have fought this proposal, we were deeply disheartened by this development. The decision is bad news for the people of the local area – residents and local businesses – and it is bad news for the planet.

The application to drill in an area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV), adjoining an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was first made in 2019. In the local elections in May 2019, collaboration between progressives prior to and during the election in terms of both policy and electoral strategy resulted in spectacular losses for the Conservatives who lost control of the council. This helped usher in a new cross-party administration with a council executive comprising councillors from the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Labour Party, alongside councillors from a residents’ group, the Farnham Residents. This new administration was determined to contest the planning application made to Surrey County County Council by UKOG to drill for fossil fuels in Waverley as both inappropriate development and incompatible with our net-zero ambitions in recognition of the climate emergency.

Waverley Borough Council held what was referred to as a “Listening Panel” in July 2019 in which 21 residents and local community groups highlighted numerous concerns to a committee of councillors. With the evidence provided from the Listening Panel and externally commissioned by Waverley’s Planning Team, Waverley Borough Council opposed and consistently campaigned against this application.

In December 2020 Surrey County Council, the planning authority, refused the application and UKOG appealed against it. A Planning Enquiry was held (commencing July 2021) but the decision was passed directly to Michael Gove as secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities. The decision of a minister in the department was communicated to us in June 2022 – a decision upholding UKOG’s appeal and ruling in favour of drilling for hydrocarbons in Dunsfold.

Waverley challenged the judgement of the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the courts and I travelled to the Royal Courts of Justice with the Leader of Waverley, Paul Follows, together with other supporters including those from Protect Dunsfold and local environmental groups, including Extinction Rebellion. We were granted the right to take the case to the High Court and, after losing the case, the council’s Executive agreed to allocate additional funding for the next stage of our legal battle, seeking the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. Sadly, we heard on Tuesday 9 January 2024 that we had failed to secure a Supreme Court hearing on this case.

All those in our current cross-party coalition were deeply disappointed by the news that we would not have the opportunity to see the legal representatives of UKOG and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities being challenged in the Supreme Court by our KC and that of Protect Dunsfold and the Good Law Project. Had we been successful, this would have set a legal precedent that could have called into question the whole future of on-shore drilling for fossil fuels in England and Wales.

Amongst all of those who had invested time and energy to this project in our cross-party administration, there was anger at the policy of the government which gives scant regard to the climate crisis we are facing, noting that the news of our failed appeal came on the same day that scientists confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year ever – and that 2024 was likely to be even hotter!

This decision represents desecration of an unspoilt part of the Surrey countryside, adverse consequences on local residents and local businesses and flies in the face of the fact that we are facing a climate crisis and that the only way to stop a catastrophic rise in global temperatures is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

It is interesting that the quoted response of Stephen Sanderson, Chief Executive of UKOG, on hearing the announcement was as follows: “We believe that a successful project will be beneficial to local and national level energy and economic interests and is fully in keeping with the government’s Hydrogen, Energy Security and Net Zero strategies.”

He is wrong that the project is beneficial to local and national energy and economic interests but he is certainly correct that the policy is “fully in keeping with the government’s Net Zero Strategy”.

Sadly it is this government’s policy that has encouraged exactly this kind of desecration of our landscape with such scant regard for the future of our planet, the government in which our own MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer serves. Back in January 2022, Jeremy Hunt stood alongside Liberal Democrat Council Leader Paul Follows and myself, challenging the proposed drilling for hydrocarbons in Dunsfold. Whatever his present protestations at the decision of the courts, he is now part of the government that has stated in all seriousness that the route to net zero is defined by even more on-shore drilling for fossil fuels and exploitation of oil and gas from the North Sea. That is why we have written an open letter to Jeremy Hunt, which more than 300 have already signed and we are asking others to back.

Essentially our challenge to Jeremy Hunt in the open letter is to explain why, as a member of the government, he considers the ongoing extraction of oil, gas and coal, including the extraction of natural gas in his own constituency, is consistent with a net zero strategy and a transition away from fossil fuels.

Steve Williams is a Green Party Councillor and Portfolio Holder for Environment & Sustainability on Waverley Borough Council

Image credit: Number 10 – Creative Commons