Introduction

Leith Hill is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is a highly unusual and fragile area within the South-East of England. Its natural environment is so rare that it has been nationally protected. Organisations including, amongst others, the National Trust, Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Surrey Hills AONB Board have all vigorously and formally objected to this planning application alongside the Leith Hill Action Group and over 1,600 equally outraged individuals.

Irreplaceable Ecological Habitat

There are very few natural habitats left that have no artificial illumination at night. The fact that the Leith Hill area has this makes it the perfect home for a number of bird and animal species that have precious little other environment to live in. For example, anybody that has been in the area at night will have noticed tawny owls and bats that live there, who need darkness to hunt.  The proposed rig has a flashing aircraft warning light on top and the rig will be illuminated at night and the whole compound will be floodlit. The combination of unusual light at night and the noise from the gas flare during the day will upset the natural environment and could drive such wildlife away – permanently. The delicate sandstone banks along Coldharbour Lane and adjacent woodland form the perfect living environment for a number of highly endangered species, such as dormice. These animals are in danger of being lost forever; destroying one of their last few homes would be disastrous.

The large, uninterrupted woodland means that a number of other endangered species, particularly birds, are able to make it their home. For example, we have witnessed nightjar, redwing, song thrush and cuckoo, which are all on the RSPB’s red list. Red kite and buzzard are regularly seen and believed to be nesting near the proposed drill site. Interrupting the woodland could drive these precious species away, possibly forever, which would have a disastrous effect on the small remaining population.

Irreplaceable Historic Lanes

Coldharbour Lane is an ancient Surrey Hills “sunken lane”, meaning that it has formed gradually over hundreds of years, creating a deep trough through which the lane runs.

These sunken lanes have very delicate banks, which are held together with the roots of the trees that line them. They are a unique, rare feature in the country and if they are damaged, they are lost forever. There is no putting them back. They are irreplaceable.

Coldharbour Lane in many places is only just wide enough for two standard cars or one moderate sized lorry. The applicant proposes using super-sized HGV's to and from the proposed site. It justifies this on the grounds of computer simulations, which demonstrate that the HGV's can fit through the lane. These simulations, however, also demonstrate a tolerance of no more than a few centimetres for such a fit and leave no room for human driving error in the slightest degree.

There are more than 1,000 proposed HGV movements up and down Coldharbour Lane. We do not find it credible that the applicant can categorically state that not one of these movements will be out of line by the few centimetres that would spell the end of the delicate banks. Just one hit by one of these lorries, remember, would spell the end of a treasured historical asset.

Anstie Lane is also an ancient sunken lane at its top end, and one that in many places is barely wide enough for a single car.  When users of Coldharbour Lane get exasperated with the inevitable delays along Coldharbour Lane (which could last for up to six months), as well as with the periods of closure, Anstie Lane will become the only viable alternative for journeys between Dorking and Coldharbour. 

Anstie Lane's delicate banks could also be easily destroyed by the likely increased flow of traffic.  It is a largely unmaintained road, clearly unsuitable for anything other than low volumes of access-only traffic.

Serious Safety Concerns for all Road Users

It will only be possible to make the required 1,000+ HGV movements and 1,000 light goods vehicle movements by setting up a traffic control system in Coldharbour Lane including traffic lights, three stop/go boards and alternating one-way systems at different locations. A planned ‘holding’ area for supersized HGV's in Knoll Road (a quiet residential road in Dorking) for dispatch in groups of three would cause major disruption for local residents and potential hazards to all road users.

The junction of Knoll Road, Ridgeway Road and Coldharbour Lane is already dangerous with poor sight lines in every direction and has recently been the scene of two serious accidents. The many pedestrians crossing this junction would have to navigate between parked HGVs and cars coming from four directions. Knoll Road is already used daily by large coaches ferrying children to and from the nearby schools as there is no alternative route and which cause considerable congestion, this situation can only be worsened.This is all an unacceptable safety hazard.

There are stretches of Coldharbour Lane proposed as suitable for two huge HGVs to pass which are only passable by two ordinary cars at walking pace. Cyclists will be particularly vulnerable. The traffic control system would considerably delay normal road users. Despite claims by the applicant that emergency vehicles would not be delayed by the traffic controls or by batches of heavily laden HGVs, this is inevitable.

There are no suitable passing places in the narrow, steep and twisting route up Coldharbour Lane to enable emergency vehicles to get past three supersized HGVs. This is a potentially life-threatening issue.

Imprisonment of Coldharbour Lane Residents

This sounds dramatic but is essentially the case! The proposed traffic control system comprises traffic lights that will be installed at the top and bottom of the affected stretch. However, in between these proposed lights are a number of properties. The proposal is that residents of these properties will have to phone ahead to the banksmen before they are allowed to exit or enter their own home, and wait for the banksmen to schedule them an exit/entrance slot. However, it has not been taken into consideration that reception for mobile phones is patchy at best throughout the length of Coldharbour Lane.

Insufficient Research into Alternative Sites

Of the 6 potential sites selected for possible development, 5 were subsequently deemed by the applicant to be unsuitable. Reasons for unsuitability include highway safety and capacity issues, prominence within the landscape, historical and ecological importance, and detrimental effect on residential properties. All these barriers to development apply equally to the site which is the subject of this application.

The only feature which distinguishes the selected site is an existing 260 metre trackway of compacted hardstanding, thereby reducing the establishment costs for the applicant.

The applicant has publicly stated that if oil or gas were found, the company would look to develop in a less sensitive area with better access to the A24 or A29. The only reason for using the exploratory site (and causing irreparable damage, safety hazards and extreme inconvenience to hundreds of people) would seem to be one of cost.

Surrey County Council’s Planning and Regulatory Committee agreed that insufficient research had been undertaken into alternative sites.

Protected land

The proposed development is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (“AONB”) and in the Green Belt. An AONB has the same legal status as a national park – development is totally prohibited unless it is in the “overwhelming national interest”.  Green Belt land is there to prevent industrialisation of the countryside and fundamental characteristics of Green Belt land are its openness and permanence.

We are in danger of the gradual bleeding out of these protections. If it becomes established that “overwhelming national interest” includes exploring for oil without proper consideration of other sites for the same exploration, despite the fact that the any find is likely to be little more than 0.01% of the UK requirement over the next 25 years, this will inevitably set a precedent for the next time a protected area of land is tested.